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When he announced the Oklahoma Pandemic Center in October 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt promised a facility that would help epidemiologists prepare for the next global pandemic. Instead, Stitt was creating another boondoggle.

“Today is an exciting day for our state and nation as we establish the Oklahoma Pandemic Center for Innovation and Excellence,” said Stitt in a prepared statement from 2020. “This center is going to make Oklahoma a Top 10 state in health care innovation and research, as the work completed here will lead global efforts in pandemic preparedness and other public health issues.”

OPINION by George Lang

Despite the happy talk and exhausting “Top 10 state” rhetoric, Stitt’s establishment of the Oklahoma Pandemic Center, a $30 million facility in Stillwater, was not well received from the start. The process involved moving the state public health lab from downtown Oklahoma City, home of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and many biotech firms, to Stillwater. 

With Oklahoma dead-last on COVID-19 variant testing while numbers are rising again, people are asking the question posited by Bob Slydell in “Office Space”: “What would you say … you do here?”

According to Dr. George Monks, former head of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, the Oklahoma Pandemic Center’s key mission was testing variants of the disease. Monks said in a recent interview with KFOR that the facility has tested no variants since its opening. 

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt gives an update at a news conference Friday, April 17, 2020. (file, Brett Dickerson, Okla City Free Press)

Monks described the facility in dire terms last April in a Twitter thread.

“The Oklahoma Pandemic Center is a 30 million dollar ghost,” he wrote. 

Well, not if you’re actually running the place. Monks wrote in April 2022 that, in addition to paying a CEO to run the center, Oklahomans are also paying a private company to manage it. And now, Monks is reporting that $30 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding was diverted to build the Oklahoma Public Health Lab. 

Oklahoma has a terrible record with CARES Act funding being spent for non-related expenses, and Monks posited that this could be the reason why the pandemic center has not done what it is supposed to do. 

Monks is now calling for a forensic audit, because the center is requesting funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 totaling $141 million. 

This seems fair, since we are far from being a “Top 10 state” for anything positive, let alone COVID-19 variant testing. If the facility is audited, perhaps we can find out why everything went to Stillwater and whether anyone got richer because of it. 

Money gets moved around by this state as if Stitt were running a boardwalk shell game. Right now, it feels like a new story emerges weekly about how Oklahoma is last or failing in almost every given category, and yet Stitt seems to be walking the bases on his way to reelection. 

Monks’ call for a forensic audit is a great start. In November, Stitt needs to be audited at the polling place. 

Last Updated June 13, 2022, 11:13 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor