$2.7 million for expanded COVID-19 testing will allow some asymptomatic residents to get tested

photo by: Associated Press

Vehicles line up for coronavirus testing at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Lawrence’s hospital is slated to receive $2.7 million for mass community testing efforts related to COVID-19. On Tuesday, LMH Health President and CEO Russ Johnson explained where that funding will go, noting that it will expand the county’s ability to test asymptomatic individuals.

The money, as the Journal-World has reported, will come from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES. Douglas County in total will receive $24.9 million.

Johnson said to think about testing in two ways: symptomatic and surveillance testing. Thus far, LMH Health has only been able to do symptomatic testing, Johnson said, meaning a person must have symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested. This extra $2.7 million will enable the hospital to begin doing surveillance testing, which is targeted testing of broader populations of people based on risk, outbreaks and more.

“The 2.7 million is designed to give Douglas County, our community, more flexibility…the ability to do testing in a large capacity for large groups of non-symptomatic patients,” Johnson said. Examples of groups that may be included in surveillance testing would be those who work for or attend schools, first responders or vulnerable populations such as people who live in long-term care facilities.

Johnson said that the hospital will not choose which groups will receive surveillance testing but will rather be directed by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and county health officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino.

Johnson was unable to provide a straightforward response on whether or not asymptomatic close contacts of a positive case will be able to get tested. He said it is a possibility.

“Right now the criteria for testing is driven by the availability of tests, and because there’s not enough testing…our bar is pretty high,” Johnson said. “So we think that (the extra tests) will enable us to lower this bar a little bit.”

All surveillance tests will be saliva tests, which are cheaper than nasopharyngeal tests — the ones with the nose swab. Saliva tests, which have been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April, require a patient to spit into a tube and can be performed at home. But Johnson said it’s also his understanding that while saliva tests have accurate results, they are not quite as accurate as the nasal swabs.

“But when you’re thinking about surveillance testing, what you’re wanting to do is make an assessment of a big group of people. And so that’s different than wanting to have very tight validity and specificity around one person,” he said. “So it allows us to do, you know, 20,000 people with a high degree of confidence, and frankly, it’s a lot easier to spit in a little tube than it is to have a swab stuck up your nose. It offers an appropriate level of validity and reliability that our docs feel makes it valid.”

Saliva tests cost $50 each, Johnson said. Nasopharyngeal tests cost between $40 to $100, depending on if LMH Health sends them to a testing lab or acquires the results in-house.

Johnson said LMH Health should have the capacity to perform around 1,000 tests per day. To accomplish this, they plan to convert a storage facility on their campus to a second testing facility that could take about 800 people a day. LMH Health’s current drive-through Respiratory Evaluation Clinic can handle only about 150 to 180 people per day. Funding to convert the storage facility into a second testing facility will also come from CARES.

In addition to the $2.7 million going to mass community testing efforts, LMH Health is slated to receive an additional $4.3 million for 12 other programs. These other programs include:

• Improvements to the existing Respiratory Evaluation Clinic

• Funding to convert the storage facility into a second drive-through clinic

• Testing for University of Kansas faculty and staff for baseline COVID-19 testing at the start of the school year

• Telehealth funding

• COVID call center funding

• Inpatient COVID nursing unit


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