Kansas lawmakers earmark $105M in federal funds to quadruple COVID-19 testing

Gov. Laura Kelly and legislators on the State Finance Council agreed Thursday in a virtual meeting to increase spending on COVID-19 testing to $80 million and earmark an additional $15 million for testing depending on demand statewide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly and legislators on the State Finance Council agreed Thursday in a virtual meeting to increase spending on COVID-19 testing to $80 million and earmark an additional $15 million for testing depending on demand statewide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly and legislative leaders approved Thursday a plan to boost COVID-19 testing in Kansas by 8,000 tests per day with up to $105 million in federal aid.

The final distribution from $1 billion in CARES Act funding also includes $30 million to stabilize operations at the Kansas Department of Labor, $35 million for housing needs, and $40 million for child care.

Kelly, six Republicans and two Democrats who form the State Finance Council unanimously approved recommendations made a day earlier by the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas task force for how the remaining $290 million in CARES Act funding will be spent. A minimum of $50 million will be directed toward testing efforts, with additional reserves set aside.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, said he expects the full $105 million available to be exhausted by testing needs. He has advocated for increased testing to drive down the overall percentage of those who test positive for COVID-19.

Denning said the state currently has the capacity for 2,800 tests per day, with up to 14.9% testing positive. The goal is to ramp up to 10,800 tests per day and boost public confidence by lowering the positive rate to 5%.

“It’s imperative that we dedicate everything necessary to drive our positive rate down to 5% or below,” Denning said. “Without doing that, it will be difficult to keep K-12 open. It will be difficult to fund the nursing home needs for their additional testing. And it will be difficult for consumers to feel comfortable going out and re-engaging in the economy.”

If the state doesn’t lower the positivity rate, Denning said, “we really won’t have accomplished much.”

Federal funding will help the Kansas Department of Health and Environment increase testing capacity by 3,000 tests per day. Labs in Lenexa and at Wichita State University have submitted applications for 1,500 tests per day. Additional applications would be needed to reach the goal.

“I would agree with you,” the governor told Denning, “that it is absolutely essential that we enhance our testing strategies in a way that will allow us to keep our schools and our businesses open.”

The council approved a request from House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, to allocate $2.77 million in reserves for COVID-19 testing at independent colleges.

Ryan Wright, interim secretary of the Labor department, said $15 million in newly released federal funding would go toward computers operations. The agency’s archaic computer system was scheduled for an overhaul before the pandemic, and contributed to a multitude of problems when unemployment numbers surged in March and April.

Nearly $10 million in CARES Act funding will pay for the addition of 200 temporary workers in the Labor department’s call center. An additional $5 million will be used to build out and administer a federal program that adds $300 to weekly benefits for Kansans who are out of work because of the pandemic.

The State Finance Council previously allocated $400 million in CARES Act funding to counties, and $314 million to address health, connectivity, education and economic-development issues.