OKLAHOMA CITY — State health officials on Thursday announced an ambitious plan to test 90,000 Oklahomans in May for COVID-19.

As part of that effort, the state will deploy nine “Caring Vans” to underserved communities in rural and urban parts of the state in an effort to take testing services to the people, said Gary Cox, state commissioner of health.

“We don’t want anybody to be denied the opportunity to have a COVID-19 test because of transportation,” he said.

Cox said the goal is to test more than 2% of Oklahoma’s population in May. He said the efforts are critical to provide data while the state’s economy is reopening.

Testing now is available to those without physician referrals and for those not showing symptoms.

“We urge the public to go through our drive-through locations and other locations and get tested,” he said. “Your participation will allow us to expand our knowledge on what is the level of the community spread and what are the number of folks that are asymptomatic or presenting without symptoms.”

The news comes as a large swath of Oklahoma businesses prepare to reopen for the first time Friday. Restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, sporting venues and gyms can reopen. Places of worship can again hold in-person services. Personal care businesses — barbershops, spas, salons and pet groomers — opened the week prior.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said businesses would reopen in a phased approached. Friday’s opening marks the first phase.

“Remember, this is a measured reopening,” he said. “We’re not flipping on the light switch tomorrow. If we want to continue to move to Phase 2, we must continue to keep up our guard, practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently and stay home if you’re sick.”

The mobile testing sites, which will be run in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, will be in addition to the 80 drive-through testing locations already operating in communities across the state.

Initially, the vans will use swabs to conduct COVID-19 testing, but eventually will transition to new a new saliva-based model that makes testing easier and more efficient.

Dr. Joseph Cunningham, president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, said his company felt more testing needed to be done.

“We also knew that it’s critical for us to perform more tests to have a better handle on this extremely contagious infection,” Cunningham said. “We’ll bring the tests to you. You don’t have to come to the tests.”

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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