Kansas signs 11 contracts to embark on more aggressive COVID-19 testing strategy

Shawnee, Douglas counties tighten restrictions as infection rates soar

By: - November 13, 2020 7:17 am
Gov. Laura Kelly entrusted the state's massive expansion of COVID-19 testing to 11 contractors that agreed to collaborate on a $50 million program to better pinpoint COVID-19 cases and bolster isolation of infected people. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly entrusted the state’s massive expansion of COVID-19 testing to 11 contractors that agreed to collaborate on a $50 million program to better pinpoint COVID-19 cases and bolster isolation of infected people. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The state of Kansas signed 11 contracts with University of Kansas Health System, Wichita State University and a collection of businesses to implement robust statewide expansion of COVID-19 testing to more rapidly identify and isolate infected people.

Gov. Laura Kelly said each would contribute to a more coordinated testing strategy starting next week that was based on assigned responsibility for testing in specific populations and counties. The project is financed with approximately $45 million in federal funding.

“Kansas is at a critical point with COVID-19,” the governor said. “Until a vaccine is widely available, one of the most important strategies to protect Kansans and ensure a promising economy is to increase testing.”

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said wearing masks, improving testing capacity and isolating people infected with COVID-19 was the best approach during the pandemic as long as there is no approved vaccine. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said wearing masks, improving testing capacity and isolating people infected with COVID-19 was the best approach during the pandemic as long as there is no approved vaccine. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The unified testing strategy endorsed by Kelly and legislators on the State Finance Council envisions broader routine screening of Kansans and better coordination of public and private testing activity.

The plan required access to additional testing supplies, transportation resources and laboratory capacity. The goal is to get test results to people within 48 hours so they could be promptly isolated.

The state entered contracts with Freestate Logistics, Clinical Reference Labs, MAWD Pathology Group, Quest Dynamics, Sinochips Diagnostics, NICUSA, Well Health, 4M, KU Health Systems and WSU. The value of the agreements wasn’t released by the governor’s office.

“When combined with wearing face masks, extensive testing — along with isolating those who are positive and quarantining close contacts — poses the most probable fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as we head into the winter months,” said Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

 

New county limits

A pair of Kansas counties with a combined 300,000 residents moved to shrink the size of public gatherings Friday and reinforce wearing of masks as the state’s major teaching hospital began postponing elective surgeries and turned away more patients due to rapid community spread of COVID-19.

Shawnee County’s emergency health order sought to answer the coronavirus surge by reducing to 10 the maximum number of people allowed at mass gatherings. Slashing of the previous 25-person cap until Dec. 14 was paired with a new rule holding restaurants to the standard already imposed on bars limiting customers to 50% of total.

In addition, the county said the maximum number of people at weddings and other private events would be cut to 100 from the previous 500-person barrier. The order also urged employers to allow personnel to work remotely from home if feasible.

Gianfranco Pezzino, the Shawnee County health officer, imposed tighter restrictions Friday on mass gatherings in the county in an attempt to stem the rapid community spread of COVID-19. (Screenshot from virtual briefing/Kansas Reflector)
Gianfranco Pezzino, the Shawnee County health officer, imposed tighter restrictions Friday on mass gatherings in the county in an attempt to stem the rapid community spread of COVID-19. (Screenshot from virtual briefing/Kansas Reflector)

Gianfranco Pezzino, the Shawnee County health officer, said changes were warranted in response to clear evidence of dramatic COVID-19 transmission. Incidence of coronavirus in the county had escalated from 345 two weeks ago to more than 600 in both of the past two weeks.

“The number of cases we are seeing every week is skyrocketing,” he said. “The only way out of this crisis is to reduce community transmission.”

In Douglas County, public health officers responded to comparable expansion of the caseload by tightening limits Friday on mass gatherings to no more than 15 people, down from the previous ceiling of 45. The county is maintaining a mask mandate applicable to people older than five years of age in all indoor public spaces, except when eating, drinking, swimming or if dealing with a medical issue.

The eastern Kansas county anchored by Lawrence reported a spike to 13.8% in COVID-19 positivity rate, which was three times the October rate. There’s been a surge in the daily number of new cases to 44, up substantially from 17 cases per day in October.

“We believe this spike is due to people letting their guards down with lapses in mask wearing, attending  social gatherings that allow for transmission of COVID-19 and people who are experiencing symptoms being out in the public instead of self-isolating to reduce the chances for exposing others,” said Tom Marcellino, a Douglas County health officer.

He said it was essential people recommit hemselves to fundamentals of wearing a mask, social distancing and personal hygiene.

 

Caseload expanding

Officials with Garden City imposed a public mask mandate in wake of action by Lyon and Jefferson counties to embrace mask orders. Only 20 of 105 counties agreed to enforce the statewide mask order issued in July by the governor, but opposition to her strategy has softened as the virus deepened its impact on the state.

In the latest seven-day period, KDHE reported, the average daily increase in cases was 2,430, daily growth in deaths was 18 and daily expansion of hospitalizations was 38.

KDHE is scheduled to release an update Friday of the overall toll since March, but the Wednesday figures were 109,000 cases, 1,200 deaths and 2,400 hospitalizations.

A Kansas Hospital Association survey indicated at least one dozen of the 30 Wichita area hospitals anticipated staffing shortages in the upcoming week and that less than 10% of intensive-care unit beds for adults were open.

KU Health System based in Kansas City, Kansas, began postponing elective surgeries Thursday to carve out bed space for COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization. KU Health System’s space and staffing crunch also prompted denial of requests from out-of-state facilities to transfer patients to Kansas.

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health System, said the idea of “COVID parties” for children in an effort to develop herd immunity as “an extremely bad idea that needs to stop.”

He said the coronavirus was nothing like chicken pox because herd immunity required 70% to 80% of the population with a disease. But 2% to 3% of the population has COVID-19, he said, with much more devastating results.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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