Staff Writer Corey Jones
On the day the state announced it’s rolling out COVID-19 saliva testing as soon as Wednesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt encouraged any Oklahoman who wants a test for the virus to be tested.
State officials also announced Tuesday a goal to use saliva to test all 42,000 residents and staff members in Oklahoma’s long-term care facilities and nursing homes within 30 days.
Oklahoma will be one of two states to launch the testing platform this week, according to the Washington Post. State officials lauded the saliva test, developed by Rutgers University, for its ease of use and safety provided to health workers collecting samples.
Stitt delivered this message to Oklahomans: Get tested.
“If you have any kind of symptoms — or even if you just want to see if you think you should get tested — we have plenty of testing in our state,” Stitt told reporters during a news conference. “Call 211. We have over 80 facilities set up across the state. We need more testing, more testing; it’s great for surveillance (of the disease).
“Even if you’re asymptomatic and you just want to get tested, we encourage you to do that. Call 211, and it’ll tell you where the closest spot is to get tested.”
The state’s latest criteria for testing prior to Stitt’s message Tuesday was that a person must exhibit symptoms or have had close contact with a person who has the disease.
In response to a Tulsa World question about whether county health departments would begin immediate testing of asymptomatic people, an Oklahoma State Department of Health spokeswoman said the agency is working with counties to lift restrictions to make it available for people who aren’t symptomatic.
In testing at all long-term care facilities and nursing homes, Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge said officials will prioritize facilities already known to have COVID-19 cases before shifting to a regional approach for the rest.
Nearly half of Oklahoma’s confirmed COVID-19 deaths — 86 of 207, or 42% — were associated with long-term care or nursing homes as of Tuesday’s latest state data. In 51 facilities, there were 522 positive residents and 237 positive staff members, for 759 cases total. The state as a whole has had 3,410 positive cases.
Elizabeth Pollard, deputy state secretary of science and innovation, said the new testing platform is efficient and requires less personal contact than nasal swabs, which will help keep health workers safe.
She said the saliva test is similar to what companies do to collect DNA for ancestry research. The person simply spits saliva into a sterile cup and screws on the lid.
“This allows us now to move from nasal swabs to saliva testing within the state,” Pollard said. “This is a huge benefit, especially for those long-term care facility residents where getting a nasal swab can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it also allows us to more quickly and adeptly process samples as people are coming through what we called our ‘swab pods’ (mobile testing), which may not be an appropriate term going forward.”
Rutgers University has found it’s able to do three times the number of tests using saliva and drop the usage rate of personal protective equipment by 90%, Pollard said.
She doesn’t know how those figures might translate to Oklahoma but is optimistic.
Oklahoma found itself in such an advantageous position because of a relationship with Dr. Andrew Brooks’ laboratory at Rutgers, the first to announce that it has validated saliva-based testing and replicate it.
Oklahoma State University’s diagnostics laboratory uses the same reagents and an almost identical testing process as Rutgers.
“So we could validate (our process) very quickly,” Pollard said, adding that the state was submitting an emergency use application to the FDA on Tuesday, expecting to receive the go-ahead within 24 hours.
She said the OSU diagnostics lab can process 1,300 saliva tests in a 24-hour period. The state also has contracted with a lab in Lubbock, Texas, that can perform thousands of tests in the same timeframe to help handle the effort to test all long-term care and nursing home facilities in Oklahoma within 30 days.
Pollard said she would guess that hospitals and health departments already have appropriate equipment on hand to collect saliva samples because those vessels aren’t complicated, but she can’t say for certain, not knowing each facility’s inventory.
“We know this will open up testing more broadly, and it provides opportunities as we go forward to look at other populations than just someone who is showing up with a referral or a specific symptom,” she said.
Gallery: Gov. Kevin Stitt outlines decrease in cases, increase in COVID-19 testing