Laurence Burnsed

The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Thursday abruptly replaced its state epidemiologist with a new interim one.

Laurence Burnsed, who has been state epidemiologist and deputy commissioner of prevention and preparedness services at the health department since November 2018, was moved to a new role “to provide epidemiological expertise to Oklahoma stakeholders,” the department announced in a news release. Burnsed has been a visible presence at press conferences, along with Gov. Kevin Stitt and Commissioner of Health Gary Cox.

Burnsed will be replaced by Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, who has a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina and worked as an epidemic intelligence service officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These actions will provide support to all areas of our state, with emphasis on rural communities, to better understand and meet needs for local community response,” the department said. ” The increase in public relations messaging and epidemiological support will help bridge the gap with local responders in public health and healthcare experts.”

The release added, “A significant part of this effort is ensuring the talent and support that exists is being accurately utilized in priority areas.”

The health department has been under fire by some local community leaders and emergency personnel, as well as residents, since the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit the state in recent weeks. Complaints often centered on a lack of testing kits for determining whether people who fell ill had the novel coronavirus disease. Some leaders in rural areas have complained that there is a lack of clear direction and a mixed messaging on how communities should respond, according to interviews around the state on Thursday by Oklahoma Watch reporters.

The shortage of testing materials and kits is not unique to Oklahoma. Many state and national leaders have expressed frustration at the waiting time for testing kits, laying some blame on the CDC for failing to turn to private suppliers earlier.

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