As COVID-19 cases in Kansas rise, state is a step closer to ramping up testing

Gov. Laura Kelly's SPARK task force plan for the remaining $290 million in federal CARES act funding emphasized testing as a priority. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansans may soon see widely expanded COVID-19 testing after a state task force Wednesday approved a plan for the distribution of millions of dollars in leftover federal pandemic aid.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas, or SPARK, task force’s proposed strategy for the $290 million in remaining CARES act funding emphasized three areas of need: public health, essential needs and services, and workforce support.

“I think there are still a lot of needs out there in business and health and we can make really good decisions about where we spend everything, but it needs to go out and get spent and help our economy right now,” said Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat. “Sometimes, we can’t make the very best decision because we don’t have the luxury of the time to go through our normal legislative paralysis of analysis.”

SPARK members echoed Hawk’s emphasis on the need for immediate action — especially for testing — as case numbers continue to rise across the state. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment most recently reported 50,870 cases and 586 deaths statewide.

The task force included a maximum of $105 million to be spent in public health, with $50 million dedicated to testing, especially for those not showing symptoms of the virus. Funding for testing is contingent upon a unified state strategy already being planned.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, front, has long pushed for expanded testing to demonstrate the state’s “false” positivity rate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, has been a staunch advocate for expanded testing across Kansas. With the state’s positivity rate hovering at 10.9%, he said expanded testing would show schools and businesses can operate safer than those analyzing COVID-19 data trends suggest.

“Once we do statewide testing, which we’re very far behind on, once the governor rolls that out, you’ll see the Kansas positivity rate head to 5% very quickly,” Denning said.

Erin Sorrell, a member of the Center for Global Health Science and Security and assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, said Denning is correct that the high positivity rate indicates the need for more testing, but for different reasons.

“I’d lean toward yes, there needs to be more testing if the positivity rate is showing above 5%,” Sorrel said. “A high positivity rate suggests higher transmission rates and potentially people in the community who haven’t been tested, and therefore risk spreading to others.”

Once tested, people can isolate to prevent further transmission, but if testing does not capture a positive case, there is an increased risk of community spread, Sorrel said.

In May, the World Health Organization advised governments that before reopening, positivity rates in testing should remain at or below 5% for 14 days.

The CARES funding distribution plan also includes an additional $33 million in reserves for public health to be invested in testing first, should there be a need after testing-specific funding is applied. If testing does not require additional aid, funds may be distributed to programs approved in the previous round of CARES funding, said Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz.

“The tricky part is we don’t know if we need any of the reserves for testing,” Lorenz said. “It’s going to be a dynamic couple of months, and we can be prescriptive about how that reserve fund gets used because it may look different in November or December than on Sept. 16.”

The plan also includes a maximum of $120 million to be spent on essential needs and services, like housing stability, and a maximum of $65 million for business resiliency and workforce support.

The distribution strategy now goes to the State Finance Council for final approval.