Ken Carlson

After big bucks are spent for upgrades, county public health lab could close

Stanislaus County’s public health laboratory could be on the chopping block.

The county Health Services Agency is exploring options including a regional approach for providing public health laboratory services. That could involve closing the local lab and sending contagious disease samples to another county for testing.

Health Services Agency Director Mary Ann Lee acknowledged the agency is considering the future of the lab at the Scenic Drive campus in Modesto. No recommendation has been developed, and Lee had no guess on when the Board of Supervisors will see a proposal.

Stanislaus County could close the lab and partner with San Joaquin County for lab services. That could mean a slower turnaround time for lab results. During the swine flu or H1N1 pandemic several years ago, it took from four to eight weeks for the county to receive test results from the San Joaquin lab, a source said.

Lee declined to discuss the reason for possibly closing the lab other than saying, “We are always assessing our operations.” The lab was not affected by a water leak in June that caused extensive damage to a former hospital building at the Scenic campus. It’s in a different building.

The public health lab helps to track outbreaks of influenza and norovirus, does testing for HIV and other contagious illnesses, and has served as a resource for county departments and other laboratories in the community.

In the past 15 years, the county has received state and federal emergency preparedness grants to upgrade its laboratory capabilities. The Health Services Agency has annual costs for operating the lab. It does not produce income from drug-testing or running tests for patients who use the county health clinics.

In August 2014, county leaders approved an initial $430,000 purchase for an electronic information management system to replace an antiquated system that could not receive orders and provide test results for customers. Under a $1 million budget, the project would enable the lab to generate income by serving more customers, but it has never been implemented, a source said.

Some counties also find it difficult to hire a public health lab director who has credentials that meet the state’s stringent standards. Stanislaus has shared a lab director with San Joaquin County.

Lee said three employees would be affected if the Stanislaus lab were to close.

Kudos for county website

About a year after activating a major redesign, Stanislaus County has received national recognition for its government services website.

StanCounty.com came in second place nationally in the 2016 Best of the Web Awards, which recognizes state and local governments across the country for efforts to provide residents with effective online services.

In the awards contest for counties, the Stanislaus site was second only to Baltimore County, Md., and was judged better than the city and county of San Francisco, which earned a fifth place award.

The Center for Digital Government holds the awards contest every year to recognize the best agency websites and applications. According to the center, government agencies are faced with rising public expectations to make more services available on the web.

Stanislaus County overhauled its website last year to do a better job of telling the county’s story and provide information on recreation, entertainment, business opportunities and county departments. With the redesign, the county is able to put newly developed online services on the site.

The redesign was primarily done in-house at a cost of no more than $3,000, a county staff member said last year. The national award announced last week “is a testament to the hard work, strong partnerships and collaborative nature of our county employees and departments,” said Mike Baliel, information technology applications manager for Stanislaus County.

The county websites were judged for innovation, efficiency, economy and how well they function. One strength of the Baltimore website is the ability to click on front-page tabs to apply for county jobs, pay property taxes or parking tickets, or get a discount on pet spay and neuter services.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321

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