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Oklahoma's public health lab is 'crumbling from the inside out'

Oklahoma's public health lab has sat in the same building for more than 40 years. If the state does not build a new lab, it could lose accreditation and thus, not be able to provide thousands of tests to hospitals and county health departments throughout the state.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: January 19, 2014 at 10:00 am •  Published: January 19, 2014
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A few months into her job, Robin Botchlet found herself standing in the state Health Department's parking lot, cutting the head off a dead cow.

The cow was suspected of carrying rabies, and Botchlet, who had graduated from Oklahoma State University only a few months before, had to test it.

“I couldn't get it in the building, so we cut the whole head off right there with an ax,” Botchlet said. “ ... And it was positive.”

Almost 40 years later, Botchlet, the technical director for the state's public health lab, finds herself coming to work at that same building.

Oklahoma's public health lab is in a fluctuating state of disrepair, with a failing air conditioning unit, drains that frequently back up and no room to expand.

At the state Board of Health meeting, the aroma from a skunk specimen headed to the rabies lab made its way to the 11th floor where the meeting was held. Board members can thank the building's air handling system for that.

“We're basically crumbling from the inside out,” Botchlet said.

Trouble ahead?

Public health officials warn that if Oklahoma does not update its public health lab, it will not only prevent the lab from growing but also will potentially cause the lab to lose its accreditation.

And without accreditation, the lab cannot perform the thousands of tests that its scientists provide to county health departments and hospitals across Oklahoma.

In 2013, the public health lab received about 194,000 specimens and ran about 661,000 tests.

A staff of 50 state employees, including 32 people who work specifically in the lab's testing units, provide testing for the flu, newborn screenings, West Nile virus, foodborne illnesses that can cause outbreaks and a variety of other services.

Oklahoma's first public health lab was established in 1908 in Guthrie. The lab eventually moved to Oklahoma City to an abandoned building owned by the city, located on E Second Street.

In 1937, the state Health Department took over the Union Soldiers' Home near 3400 N Eastern, and the public health lab moved into the hospital portion of that facility, according to the department.

Several years later, in 1972, the lab moved again, this time to its current location at the state Health Department at 1000 NE 10th St.

It remains one of the older labs in the U.S.

Out of the 35 state public health labs that responded to a 2008 Association of Public Health Laboratories survey, 13 were constructed between 1970 and 1980. Since 2008, several new labs have opened and others are in planning phases, said Jody DeVoll, director of strategic communications at the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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