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State Epidemiologist Says Oklahoma Now More Able To Detect COVID Variants, Urges Proactive Testing

Oklahoma State Department of Health

Oklahoma now has greater capability to perform genomic sequencing on COVID-19 samples, making detection of any mutations or variants easier to do in-house -- but the state epidemiologist said Thursday the upgrade's usefulness is dependent on whether Oklahomans continue to proactively seek out testing.

"In the grand scheme of things, that's only relevant if people seek out testing," said Dr. Jared Taylor on a virtual press briefing Thursday morning. "We really want to return to a point of advocating people seek out testing, and if we get that, we are doing a reemphasis on the case investigation [and] contact tracing."

Taylor said the Oklahoma State Department of Health previously had to send samples out and work with the federal Centers for Disease Control in identifying mutations in samples, but the new public health lab, recently (and controversially) relocated from Oklahoma City to Stillwater, now has that ability in its own facility.

“This is exactly the type of critical research and development endeavor this center was established to do to improve our overall health response and outcomes," said Dr. Michael Kayser, who heads both the public health lab and the newly-created Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence which houses it. "The United States is severely behind the global curve in its capabilities to sequence for the coronavirus, but with the OPCIE, Oklahoma is able to perform the necessary research that will set the standard for all of us to begin prioritizing the investment in our current and future public health responses.” 

Taylor said the variants commonly known as the "Brazil variant" and "U.K. variant" have already been positively identified in Oklahoma, and it is likely that there are others present in the state -- perhaps ones that have yet to be identified.

"Hopefully we don't have the privilege, but certainly the opportunity is there that we become the identifier of the 'Oklahoma strain,' right? Which, again, we don't want to have that, and as a secondary point, we'd love to get away from tagging these with specific monikers derived from where they're first isolated," Taylor said.

Taylor said the encouragement for Oklahomans to continue to seek testing encompasses even those individuals who have received their complete series of vaccinations.

"We want to encourage Oklahomans to seek out testing even if they've been vaccinated," Taylor said. "If they're contacted and they've been told that they've been exposed and they say, 'Oh, well I don't need to worry about it, I don't need to quarantine, I've been vaccinated' -- even if you've received both your doses, there's no harm in going and getting tested. And, in fact, it has the potential for us to bring value. The only way we're going to find out how efficacioius these vaccines are in preventing shedding, reinfection and all those critical things is to be looking for it."

Taylor said Oklahoma is not the first state to have this capability, but is in the minority of states that do.

"We're certainly a leader within our region, and we feel like it's important to recognize, you know, we're going to be far ahead in terms of the technology and the abilities that this is bringing to us. So, yeah, there are some states that are ahead of us in terms of that capability, and we feel that this is not only going to catch us up but actually sort of vault us ahead of them in terms of the cutting-edge technology that we're using," Tayler said.

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