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.
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.
“It's not the oldest state lab in the country, but it is certainly ‘old' in terms of the standards, instrumentation and overall design requirements for a major reference laboratory that handles surveillance, detection and response to a range of health threats,” DeVoll said in an email.
A critical point
Oklahoma's public health lab is accredited through the College of American Pathologists, an organization that has led lab accreditation for more than 50 years with more than 7,500 accredited laboratories in 50 countries.
Thus far, Oklahoma's lab has been cited twice during accreditation reviews for not having enough space.
Dr. Richard Gomez, chair of the College of American Pathologists' Council on Accreditation, said the organization's inspectors use extensive checklists when they visit a laboratory renewing or seeking accreditation.
Whether the lab has adequate space is part of that.
“Should a laboratory not meet these requirements, a written response and supporting documentation demonstrating compliance would be required before granting accreditation,” Gomez said in an email. “The corrective action must be approved by the College of American Pathologists' Accreditation Committee before accreditation is granted.”
The next accreditation team comes to Oklahoma in February 2015. If the lab is cited again, they will have to produce a plan that shows they're actively trying to resolve the problem.
Health department officials have started work on a plan for what they will do if they're cited, said Toni Frioux, the state Health Department deputy commissioner for prevention and preparedness.
Frioux said a new public health lab would cost Oklahoma an estimated $41 million. It costs $13 million to run the current lab, with most funding coming from the federal government.
The state Health Department would pay for the new lab through a capital improvement bond, which the state Legislature would have to approve.
“That's not to say that the quality of our laboratory services isn't very good,” Frioux said. “But we have reached a critical point where we really need to move into more modern facilities.”