TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration moved closer Monday to awarding $52 million in contracts broadening the reach of COVID-19 testing and slashing time required to get results as coronavirus cut a wider path through rural counties previously shielded during the pandemic.
The third round of federal CARES Act aid would follow at least $34 million previously dedicated to testing people exhibiting symptoms or considered part of a cluster outbreak in Kansas. Under the strategy endorsed by Kelly and a bipartisan group of state legislators, the state plans to begin routine testing of people without symptoms. Another goal is to screen communities to block spread of the virus, especially in nursing homes and schools.
The new plan will weave together capabilities of public and private laboratories and add the expertise of nearly two dozen bidders, including 10 bidders from Kansas, capable of reinforcing the state’s transportation, communications and testing capacity, said Marci Nielsen, special adviser to the governor on development of a coordinated testing program.
It’s possible the new contractors could be publicly announced Wednesday, she said, depending on whether contracts were signed.
“Obviously,” Nielsen said, “COVID-19 continues to impact Kansans very negatively and the importance of testing cannot be overstated. We wanted to move away from sort of the haphazard ‘Who’s testing where?’ and better coordinate our efforts.”
Lyle Butler, chairman of the governor’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas task force, works to monitor nearly $1 billion in coronavirus aid.
He said getting more testing underway would save lives. He said the state was about five months behind where it should have been in terms of testing capacity. The coronavirus funding allocated by Congress and President Donald Trump must be spent by Dec. 30.
So far, there have been 547,200 negative tests and 78,600 positive tests in Kansas for COVID-19. At least 3,600 residents of the state have been hospitalized and 975 fatalities have been documented by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Kelly, a Democrat who has tangled with Republicans since March on COVID-19 policy, intends to meet privately with House and Senate leaders Tuesday to discuss spread of the virus into counties without a mask mandate.
Since the governor issued her most recent mask order in July, local officials in 80 of 105 counties still decline to remove barriers to enforcing the edict. New research at the University of Kansas indicates masks helped flatten the curve of coronavirus infection in counties abiding by Kelly’s order, but counties without a mask rule witnesses an escalation in infection.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican and member of the SPARK executive committee, said there was at least $30 million in additional federal funding that could be used to continue with expanded testing into January.
He also secured an assurance the state’s expansion of testing would feature the simple saliva test and wouldn’t be limited to the intrusive nasal swab test.
“The deep swab is a nonstarter,” Denning said. “A human being’s only going to have that once voluntarily. They do not repeat that test ever.”
Butler, the coronavirus task force chairman appointed by Kelly, said the new round of state contracts should be crafted to require contractors to guarantee test results within 48 hours. There has been criticism of delays of a week or so in securing test results in Kansas.
“If we do these things and it takes of three, five, seven days — which is what it was in the past — it doesn’t really do us any good,” he said.