State-backed community, business COVID-19 testing to continue into 2022 under new funding plan

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas support for community and employer-based COVID-19 testing will continue into 2022, thanks to $42 million in funding given preliminary approval Monday. Dakota Smith, contract worker for KDHE, administers a COVID-19 test at a site near the Statehouse.

State support for community and employer-based COVID-19 testing would continue into 2022, thanks to $42 million in funding which was granted preliminary approval Monday.

Legislators and the state's business community raised alarm last month when it was disclosed the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was going to run out of funds to support some testing providers by the end of November.

Agency officials said at the time this was largely due to an unexpected rise in demand for services due to a delta variant-fueled spike in COVID-19 cases in Kansas. KDHE was quick to note that other, free testing options would remain available.

Still, the lapse in funds would implicate key parts of the state's Unified Testing Program, which rolled out last year in a bid to use private laboratories to support testing in a variety of settings. Most notably, funding support for some workplaces to test up to 10% of their employees would be in jeopardy.

Legislators raised alarm at what this might mean for businesses, as well as community providers, who would have to send their results to the state laboratory, rather than private labs which can often turn tests around more quickly.

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"Families that have used that lab will not have that luxury anymore, businesses that have been able to use that for their employees — from the three-person business to the 20,000-person business — even our schools will not have access to that testing availability," Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, said last month. "Most of the time, the Wichita State lab, your response came back within about two hours."

Lawmakers said it was of particular concern given a mandate from the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration that workers either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or test weekly, although that is largely separate from the programs KDHE funds. Myron Gunsalus, director of the KDHE lab, said Monday that state funds instead would go to testing at pre-registered businesses, not necessarily all those covered by the OHSA mandate.

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Funding to cover testing for next four months

A testing site supported by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment south of the Statehouse is set to stay open for the foreseeable future after lawmakers on Monday gave initial approval to $42 million in new funding.

That same group of lawmakers, the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Executive Committee, approved $17 million in funding to continue support for community providers, as well as an additional $25 million to boost employer testing.

The recommendation to approve the funding still needs to be approved by the State Finance Council, a group of top legislative Republicans and Gov. Laura Kelly. But it earned bipartisan support during Monday's SPARK meeting in Kansas City, Kan.

"I think it is a good motion and I think it is important we don’t have an interruption of testing services and I think it is important that this body has a clear statement in support of testing," said Lt. Gov. David Toland, who chairs the SPARK panel.

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The money is expected to allow testing to continue through the next four months and the state has already applied for those funds to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The news was cheered by the business community, particularly in and around Wichita, where organizations had come to use the lab at Wichita State University to get testing results quickly for their workers.

Andrew Wiens, vice president of government relations for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, praised the decision in a statement, saying it is "absolutely critical to economic growth and public health outcomes for Kansans across our state, including employees."

"Funding for testing will help keep these men and women healthy and working, putting food on their tables, medicine in their cabinets, gas in their vehicles, and other necessities in their homes," Wiens said.

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Other testing efforts, including KDHE's work supporting testing in schools, has been unaffected. And other programs have been moved to different state or federal efforts.

"We have been able to find other homes for much of the testing programs we started last year," Gunsalus said.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.