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Placer County public health lab to close

Public health lab tests to be done in Sacramento
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Placer County’s public health lab will be closed by the end of June in a move that officials say could save up to $1 million annually.

Closure of the North Auburn facility will mean the elimination of seven lab-related jobs.

Opponents of the shutdown argued that it would be a loss of what amounted to seven emergency responder positions.

With the closure, Placer County will have its public health laboratory testing for rabies, Lyme disease, plague and other health threats done in Sacramento County. Estimated cost is $25,000 a year.

In December, the Placer County Board of Supervisors stalled on a decision and asked for more information on options to keep the lab open. But Tuesday’s report from top Health and Human Services officials didn’t change the primary reason to close the lab — that it was losing money and there was a lower-cost alternative.

Dr. Robert Oldham, the county health officer, said that one of the revenue streams considered was a return to drug-testing services, a source of income that was lost a decade ago to private labs. It’s “very unlikely” that the tests could be brought back, he said.

The idea of having counties now being served by the Placer lab pay a fairer share of costs was also considered. Yuba, Sutter and Nevada counties use the Placer County lab and calculations showed that they would pay more than 10 times what they’re paying now to provide what would be considered a fair share, Oldham said.

None of the counties were interested in the “fair share” model, given the alternative of contracting at a lower cost with Sacramento County, he said.

Dr. Musau Wakabongo, public health lab director, said that any public health lab is under pressure from a budget perspective until a widespread emergency requiring test results takes hold and the lab becomes a necessity.

“Our mission is to prevent the spread of disease,” Wakabongo said.

Wakabongo gave examples. She described the role Placer County played in 2016 when a young student in Nevada County exposed other kids who hadn’t been vaccinated to measles. In March, the sheriff’s office had white powder tested on the suspicion that it was anthrax, and the lab was able to determine it wasn’t. When a family of five grew concerned that their cat had come down with the plague, the lab was able to do the tests and calm their concerns, the lab director said.

Wakabongo described the lab employees as first responders and wondered whether the Sacramento County lab would prioritize its own county’s needs and residents over Placer’s in the event of an outbreak that required mass testing.

Supervisors, however, decided to opt for savings, which can be spent on other programs, including opioid-abuse prevention.

Supervisor Kirk Uhler said that lab workers “shouldn’t take this personally” and should instead consider the supervisors being faced with what he considered a business decision “in the best interests of all taxpayers in Placer County, not just those currently providing a service.”

All four supervisors on Feb. 6 voted in favor of the lab closure. Supervisor Jim Holmes said that Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery was ill and unable to attend.