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Kansas Aims For 400,000 More Coronavirus Tests Before Year's End As Rural Cases Surge

Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
A drive-through coronavirus testing center in Wichita.

WICHITA, Kansas — Amid a surge of coronavirus cases across rural Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly provided details on her new statewide testing plan Wednesday, adding 400,000 more by the end of the year.

That's nearly double the amount of tests available now, with the goal of reaching a total of 1 million tests. The extra capacity is expected to go to schools and high-risk populations, like those living and working at nursing homes.

“This is especially important for populations at high risk but also for businesses across the state worried about keeping their workforces safe and their doors open,” Kelly said at a news conference.

Kansas reported about 3,400 new cases between Monday and Wednesday, including 31 new deaths. About half of those new cases are due to an update to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s system. But even accounting for that, Kansas still added hundreds more cases in the time frame than it did the previous week.

Kelly plans on using federal funding for the increased testing, as well as expanding infrastructure like improving testing capacity at labs, better transportation of samples to labs and increasing data accuracy to better track coronavirus trends across the state.

The plan would also distribute more resources for isolating and quarantining, though Kelly did not provide details.

The highest rates of infection are in rural counties, especially in the western half of Kansas. 

Norton County in northwest Kansas (population of about 5,500) has more than 550 cases, making it one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the U.S. Finney County, which includes Garden City, reports its positivity rate from two weeks ago reached 31%.

Lindsay Byrnes, the county health department’s medical director, emailed Garden City commission members this week asking for an immediate implementation of a mask mandate in the city itself. She said in the letter that the hospital there is “incredibly strained.”

But Finney County Commissioner Duane Drees said Wednesday that it isn’t the government’s job to force people to wear masks or socially distance. He also said that it isn’t realistic to expect the county’s large immigrant population to obey the guidelines because they like to have family gatherings.

Finney County Health Department Director Colleen Drees would not comment on whether her agency needs more help from the county government to make sure people are taking precautions.

The virus is spreading widely across the community, she added.

“I wouldn't say that there's any specific outbreaks that are causing it. We've had several people that have reported that they're not sure where they contracted COVID.”

Recently, the county commission Crawford County in far southeast Kansas issued a stricter mask ordinance that requires people to wear a mask in public.

The Wichita area also is seeing a steady increase in cases, topping more than 11,300 on Wednesday. Sedgwick County's two-week percent-positive rate is up to 13.3%, which is approaching the peak of 14.1% in July. Ascension Via Christi hospitals in Wichita are at capacity, and Wesley Medical Center is at 90% capacity, Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stoltz said about information he received from hospital administrators.

“They’re wanting to talk with us about some emergency funding,” Stolz said during a county commission meeting Wednesday. “They’re looking at options now for overflow patients and staffing concerns.”

Kelly and top Republicans agreed Tuesday to encourage Kansas counties to adopt local mask mandates rather than impose a statewide rule. Most of the state’s counties opted out of the mandate, and mask-wearing is a political sticking point. In Wichita, police arrested a man after he allegedly threatened the Democratic mayor because of the city’s mask mandate.

An analysis from the University of Kansas found that of the 80 Kansas counties without mask orders, they’ve seen a significant increase in coronavirus case rates in recent months. Counties that require masks have had a relatively flat rate of new cases.

About a month after the pandemic began in Kansas, lawmakers and the governor have clashed over her response. Republicans were angered that she closed businesses statewide and in response voted to restrict her emergency powers.

Kelly ultimately vetoed that bill and called a special session, where legislative leaders reached a deal to extend the state’s coronavirus emergency order in exchange for Kelly giving up some of her powers to respond to the virus. That bill also gave counties the ability to opt out of her mask orders.

Tensions between the governor and lawmakers have eased after Kelly said she has no intention of closing businesses again. That convinced Republicans to extend the statewide emergency order, which must now be done monthly and is up for renewal again in mid-November.

Kansas News Service reporters Nomin Ujiyediin and Stephen Koranda contributed to this report.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.