Contract for COVID-19 testing at KU provides some details, but some questions remain as fall semester winds down

photo by: Journal-World Photo

The self-collection saliva kit that is being used to test student, faculty and staff for COVID-19 at the University of Kansas.

The University of Kansas Hospital Authority at the end of July agreed on a contract with Lenexa-based Clinical Reference Laboratory to provide at least 35,000 COVID-19 tests for Kansas’ flagship university between August and December, records show.

But exactly how much KU has paid the company and how many samples the lab has tested during the course of the fall semester is unclear from the contract, which the Journal-World recently obtained through a public records request. The pricing breakdown of the saliva-based tests is redacted from the contract, despite the tests being paid for by federal dollars through the March CARES Act stimulus legislation.

Jill Chadwick, the director of media relations for KU Health Systems, said in an email that the agency doesn’t release competitive pricing information and has an exemption from being legally required to do so in the Kansas Open Records Act.

KU received $2.8 million in July from Gov. Laura Kelly’s SPARK Taskforce, responsible for allocating Kansas’ portion of the federal stimulus, that was earmarked for COVID-19 testing. It’s unclear if all $2.8 million will be spent with CRL — KU also offers two nasal swab testing sites separate from the saliva-based tests.

A regular COVID-19 test on CRL’s website is listed at $129, though universities that purchase the tests in bulk receive a discounted rate. What exactly KU’s rate was is redacted in the contract.

A KU spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment for this story, which asked for more details on whether KU had already expended its 35,000 tests from CRL, whether all of the CARES Act money went toward the CRL agreement, and whether anything has been definitively decided on COVID-19 testing for the spring semester.

Also of note in the agreement is that the term of the initial contract doesn’t expire until July 31, 2021, and will automatically renew for successive one-year terms unless KU or CRL provides a 30-day notice of intent to cancel the agreement.

Earlier this month, Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer told members of a KU governing body that the university would once again require COVID-19 entry testing to begin the spring semester, which is scheduled for a late start date of Feb. 1.

“We have about three and a half months as we’re looking through and understanding how testing technology is changing and what costs associated are with different kinds of testing, and trying to see what financial support we’ll have for testing,” she said on Oct. 13.

At a minimum, Bichelmeyer said during the meeting, the testing operation for the spring semester on KU’s campus will reflect what it was in the fall, with symptomatic patient testing, prevalence testing and random population testing continuing after the mass entry testing program concludes.

“We know we’ll be doing that and be trying to find the most accurate tests that are the least expensive with the most rapid turnaround and see how much we can continue to do that,” she said.

KU and CRL’s mass entry COVID-19 testing program tested 22,563 students, staff and faculty members from mid-August through early September and ultimately discovered 546 positive cases. KU officials have credited mass entry testing for essentially saving the semester, as it allowed officials to know who had the virus so those infected could be isolated rather than spread the respiratory virus around the community.

In general, COVID-19 case counts at KU have fallen significantly in recent weeks. The university has confirmed only 38 new cases of the virus since a data update on Oct. 14, and said Friday only eight new cases have been confirmed since data was last released on Oct. 27. KU’s total case count sits at 1,109.

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