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Interim commissioner: state health department 'well positioned' despite spate of resignations

Jackie Fortier / StateImpact Oklahoma

The interim head of the Oklahoma State Health Department said Wednesday that despite recent turnover, the agency is prepared to meet its responsibilities, including its response to COVID-19.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye suddenly resigned Friday, and OSDH confirmed its chief operations and financial officers quit in the past few weeks, too. Interim State Health Commissioner Keith Reed said those departures are not related.

"Absolute coincidence that those occurred. And I understand the timing was really close, but no, completely unrelated, all three of those," Reed said.

OSDH has also gone through several state epidemiologists during the pandemic. Reed said that’s partly because OU and OSU stepped in to help with experts on a temporary basis. After State Epidemiologist Laurence Burnsed was reassigned shortly after COVID’s arrival in Oklahoma, OU’s Dr. Aaron Wendelboe and OSU’s Dr. Jared Taylor served as the second and third state epidemiologists of the pandemic.

Current State Epidemiologist Jolianne Stone was named to the post in late April.

Reed said it’s difficult to work in public health during a pandemic. Asked whether Oklahomans should be concerned about the turnover at OSDH, Reed said he didn't think they should.

"I feel like our agency is well positioned. We worked very closely with Dr. Frye as — working to transform the agency and set ourself up strategically to be very strong and stable moving forward. An organization like this is far more than one individual. It's far more than two or three individuals," Reed said.

OSDH is currently looking for Frye’s replacement. Asked whether he would consider being state health commissioner permanently, Reed said he’s satisfied in the deputy role.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.