Reno County Commissioners Tuesday adopted a temporary plan to test 1,000 asymptomatic individuals for COVID over four weeks, believing that will show a more realistic positivity rate for the virus. 

As of Sept. 1, the county had a seven-day average positivity rate of 9.6% including the prison population. Excluding inmates, the county positivity rate was 7.8 percent.

Reno County Interim Health Officer  said the gating criteria and the current positivity rate don’t match up to what officials are seeing on the ground because most testing is done on people who already show symptoms.  As a result, she says the percentage of those testing positive likely will be higher.

“To have an accurate test rate, you cannot just target your people who have symptoms,” Karen Hammersmith, Reno County Interim Health Officer Karen Hammersmith, told the commission.

Dr. Mark Steffen, who is running for state representative, says a COVID test costs approximately $100, so healthy individuals aren’t likely to pony up for a test if they feel fine, and insurance typically won’t cover a test that isn’t being used to then treat a potential illness. 

For now, Reno officials approved spending a little more than $118,000 over the course of four weeks to provide testing to asymptomatic individuals. Reno County is preliminarily approved for $12.6 million in federal CARES money, and some of it could be used to pay for the testing initiative. In the meantime, commissioners agreed the county could float funding to cover the testing.

Steffen calls the expenditure “funny money,” because the money is being used to get around arbitrary gating criteria created by bureaucrats.

“It’s just another indictment on (Gov.) Laura Kelly’s moving target and nonsensical approach,” Steffen said. “It’s interesting that Reno County has kind of come up with the concept to kind of harvest negative test results.”

The KDHE-recommended gating criteria for full, in-person learning requires a 14-day positivity rate below 5 percent.

Under the color-coded gating criteria adopted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and many school districts, Reno County schools are in a yellow zone that allows in-person school for elementary kids but only remote learning for middle school and high school students. The positivity rate must drop below 5 percent, in the green zone, for all students to return to classrooms in person. Nursing homes are using similar gating criteria to determine when they can allow visitors and change some COVID-related protocols.

Last Friday, school district staff and their families were notified of a free testing event to be held the following day. Hutchinson Clinic tested up to 250 school district staff and spouses the following day, with informal approval from the county commissioners. The results of those tests weren’t available at press time. On Tuesday, commissioners formally approved the asymptomatic testing initiative retroactively for last Saturday and the next three weeks. Commissioners will revisit continued funding for the project in a few weeks.

“If we can test the community as a whole and show a lower rate of total community spread, we’ve got a better chance of keeping schools on that chart in green instead of a shutdown,” Reno County Commissioner Ron Hirst said. “…We need to do whatever we can to keep schools open.”

Steffen wants to keep schools open, but he said the decision marks resignation to living in the current situation spending money for nothing but bureaucratic measurement.

“This positive test rate data point makes no sense to me as a medical doctor, as a scientist. It makes no sense because it’s so easy to manipulate,” Steffan said.

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