Health department: State quadruples testing in May, positive results drop below 4%


The Oklahoma State Department of Health more than quadrupled its COVID-19 testing in May, delivering results on over 90,000 specimens as the rate of positive cases dropped to its lowest point since the pandemic began, according to Oklahoma State Health Department leaders.

The actual number of COVID-19 cases has “flatlined” in recent weeks rather than dropping, but that is primarily because of outbreaks in isolated areas, interim state epidemiologist Aaron Wendelboe said.

The increase in testing came as the state’s businesses, houses of worship and other activities began phased-in reopenings in late April and early May.

“Since the state began reopening various elements of the economy, the percentage of positives has fallen to an all-time low of 3.8%, hospitalizations continue to decline and our COVID-related deaths have declined,” Wendelboe said in response to written questions this week.

In April, the state tested about 20,000 specimens. Gov. Kevin Stitt set a goal of testing 2% of the state’s population, or about 90,000 people, in May, and that was achieved, health department leaders said.

Interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye said Thursday, “Reaching this goal is only a starting point in the strategy for Oklahoma. In order to increase progress on minimizing the spread of COVID-19, we will continue to expand testing accessibility, increase contact tracing efforts and encourage Oklahomans to remain steadfast by continuing to follow state and CDC guidelines.”

The state conducted testing at more than 80 county health department locations and ramped up testing at long-term care facilities and prisons. Private health providers also conduct testing.

Since March, the state has tested 183,632 specimens, though that number does not represent unique individuals since some people are tested more than once. The push to test in May did create backlogs at labs this month, and some county health departments were ordered to slow or even stop taking samples. Still, the state averaged 4,324 tests per day this month, according to the Health Department.

Outbreaks raise case numbers

A modeling website called this week named Oklahoma as one of the 13 states that had met the website’s targets for testing.

The site said Oklahoma’s target should be 3,320 tests per day by June 1. Instead, according to the site, Oklahoma averaged 5,358 tests per day over seven days; the results were released Sunday. The same website predicts that Oklahoma will experience 598 deaths by Sept. 1, meaning that nearly 300 more Oklahomans could die from COVID-19 related illnesses in the next three months. Total cumulative deaths reported through Thursday was 326.

Major outbreaks at the meatpacking plant in Guymon and the Comanche County Detention Center in Lawton have driven up positive test results, according to Wendelboe. An outbreak at a federal inmate transfer center in Oklahoma City caused a spike in numbers a week ago, according to Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt.

Despite the outbreaks, the state’s rate of positive cases hit 3.8% this week, which Wendelboe said was the lowest recorded. The rate is computed from the number of positive specimens in the total number of specimens tested.

The national cumulative rate of positives is close to 11%, according to the Covid Tracking Project, though the daily rate has been much lower recently; on Thursday, it was less than 6%.

Contact tracing

Oklahoma has expanded its program of contacting people who may have been exposed to persons who test positive for COVID-19. Those people are being asked to quarantine themselves.

Wendelboe had expressed concern that people might be unwilling to cooperate.

But he said this week the health department “has had a very positive response from Oklahomans as a whole. We can count on one hand the number of people who initially expressed reservation and we were able to overcome that through continued conversation and education as to how the tracing process is a protective and preventive measure for the positive person, their family members and their communities.”

Wendelboe said the state hopes to maintain its momentum in reducing the infection rate.

“But we cannot do it alone through testing,” he said. “We need the continued partnership of the public and Oklahoma businesses through the practicing of personal responsibility, by collaborating with (Health Department) professional contact tracers, and in allowing us to come in and test pockets of populations that are at higher risk.”

Related Photos
Canadian County Health Department employees collect samples from drivers during a testing event at Yukon Middle School on May 6. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Interim Oklahoma Health Commissioner Lance Frye