Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told a task force Wednesday the state needs to expand COVID-19 testing by contracting with private laboratories and transitioning to a saliva test that isn't as difficult to administer as the nasal swab test for coronavirus. (Aug. 12, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said Wednesday the state’s coronavirus testing capacity should be dramatically expanded through contracts with commercial laboratories required to deliver results within 48 hours.

“We don’t have the leverage in the state laboratory to meet the full amount of testing required by the state of Kansas,” KDHE secretary Lee Norman said. “I think it would be a terrific help to partner with commercial labs to increase testing capacity.”

Norman told members of the governor’s Office of Recovery Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas task force that continued spread of the virus necessitated changes in testing strategy. He pointed to five new COVID-19 cluster sites at colleges and universities in Kansas, an emerging threat with students returning to campuses for start of fall semester classes.

He said adjustments to the state’s response to COVID-19 should include transition to simple saliva diagnostic tests that can be processed quickly. The state has relied on an intrusive nasal swab test for coronavirus that is best administered by trained personnel, he said.

“The way we are going to broaden our testing numbers is by having different, additional testing methods that are user-friendly,” the secretary said.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican serving on the SPARK task force, said there was research recommending Kansas could better deal with the virus by amplifying the level of testing by a factor of 10. He said that would mean, for example, that processing by KDHE and private labs of test kits would rise from 3,700 daily to more than 37,000 daily.

“If we’re not going to measure this thing, we’re never going to get in front of it,” Denning said. “If we need to make that 10 or 12 or 15%, I think we need to be told that so everybody knows where we need to start heading.”

Norman said it would be logistically difficult to implement a statewide program that tested 10 times the current number, but he didn’t identify what level of increase was reasonable.

Officials at KDHE should develop a target for optimal testing and make that known to the public, Denning said.

KDHE reported the state has compiled 35,890 positive cases of COVID-19 and the number of recorded hospitalizations has risen to 2,090 and the number of deaths has climbed to 411. Since March, KDHE said, the state has documented 325,000 negative tests for the virus. The agency says there are 149 active clusters of infection statewide, including nine at correctional facilities.

Norman said KDHE’s laboratory performed 40% of COVID-19 testing in Kansas and was able to generate results in one to three days. Private labs in Kansas typically take seven to 14 days to produce results, he said.

Denning said state contracts with commercial laboratories should impose a maximum turnaround time of 48 hours. Longer lag times and low-volume testing compromises the ability of health departments to engage in precision contact tracing and the quarantine of people to deter spread of COVID-19, he said.

“If they don’t turn it around in 48 hours, we should not pay for it because it’s absolutely useless. If it’s 48 hours, we’ll pay. If it’s four days, we’re paying zero. I think that’s important,” Denning said.

The SPARK task force has taken the lead in determining how to allocate $1 billion in federal relief funding for COVID-19. So far, $400 million in funding has been distributed to county governments.

At noon Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Commerce began accepting applications from businesses for $130 million in grants for companies undercut by the pandemic. The link for applications can be found at kansascommerce.gov/covidrelief.

The SPARK task force and the Department of Commerce structured grants for businesses whose products and services were required in greater volume to combat the virus. Money was set aside to improve broadband connectivity, especially connections in low-income households, through collaboration with internet service providers.

In addition, grants will provide working capital to businesses with fewer than 500 employees for payroll, mortgage insurance and utilities. There are grants for food industry companies, for purchase of personal protective equipment and to mitigate IT job losses.

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