Ronald White, right, and health care workers from the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center greet patients at Friendship Baptist Church in east Kansas City for a free COVID-19 test on Nov. 17. The community drive-thru COVID-19 testing at Friendship Baptist Church was in partnership with the Kansas City Health Department. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Despite an increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the Kansas City area over the last few weeks, officials say fewer people are using free community testing sites run by health departments.

“It’s definitely concerning,” Frank Thompson, deputy director of the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department, said of the decrease in people getting tested. “Even though the numbers are lower, the positivity rates are still up.” 

Thompson says even though most of the people the KCMO Health Department tests are asymptomatic, the positivity rates are still above 8%. In May, the World Health Organization recommended governments have a positivity rate below 5% for two or more weeks before reopening.

Meanwhile, health departments and pharmacies are planning significant changes for their community test sites — including moving them indoors — so they have heating for the winter months.

In a recent news briefing, chief medical officers at Kansas City metro hospitals warned there is a shortage of staffed hospital beds and elective surgeries, including joint replacement, heart and cancer surgeries, may have to be delayed. John Stamm, chief of staff for the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, said the city has reached uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19.

While in the past many health departments required those getting tested to have COVID-19 symptoms, now almost all allow those without symptoms to be tested.

“There is a lot of capacity for testing out in the community right now,” Thompson said.

Samuel U. Rodgers health care worker Kamaiya Harris administers a COVID-19 test on Nov. 17 during community drive-thru testing at the Friendship Baptist Church in east Kansas City, Missouri. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

The KCMO Health Department and Public Health Department in Wyandotte County have same-day walk-up testing available Monday through Friday for most weeks, without any appointment needed. The KCMO Health Department recently added a fourth provider so it could expand its testing days to Fridays, according to Thompson. Jackson County test sites take walk-ups on a limited basis. Other sites require an appointment.

Tom Wiser, a spokesperson for eTrueNorth, which operates free COVID-19 drive-through test sites at area pharmacies like Price Chopper and Hy-Vee, and said its sites in the Kansas City area have ample capacity, and there are many open spots for next-day testing.

Most community testing sites in Kansas City now make use of lower nasal cavity swabs, with eTrueNorth, CVS and Walgreens using self-administered tests.

However, the KCMO Health Department has nurses administer its tests and warns self-administered tests aren’t as accurate.

“You can get false negatives,” Thompson said. “That’s one of the concerns with the drive-up self-administered, because not everyone is going to take the time to get a good sample.”

In Wyandotte County, the health department recently started using saliva tests at its permanent testing location. Those tests use a swab under the tongue instead of in the nasal cavity.

Currently, COVID-19 test providers say the wait for test results ranges between two and four business days.

Walgreens and CVS also have limited free rapid testing sites available. But rapid antigen tests are less accurate, especially in people who are asymptomatic. When a rapid test made by Quidel was used to screen people who didn’t have symptoms, it only detected 32% of COVID-19 cases identified as positive by a PCR test, which is the type of test most often used.

Problems with community testing

Public health officials say the decline in the number of people getting tested has gone down since the summer. KCMO Health Department events have the capacity to do up to 150 tests per day, Thompson said, but lately they’ve only been averaging around 75 to 80 tests.

Janell Friesen, spokesperson for the Public Health Department in Wyandotte County, says fewer people have been using Wyandotte County’s daily pop-up testing sites.

Samuel U. Rodgers health care worker and testing site coordinator Annie Lacy prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at a community drive-thru testing site at Friendship Baptist Church in east Kansas City, Missouri. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

“We want to remind people that they are still going on,” she said, adding that it’s important for people to get tested if they have symptoms or a known exposure. 

She also says people who are asymptomatic should consider getting tested if they work in a place where they have more potential exposure, or if they plan on seeing family they haven’t seen in a while.

The Public Health Department in Wyandotte County recently moved its permanent test site to a new indoor location, which allows it to serve more people during colder weather, Friesen said. Over the summer, Wyandotte County had few permanent COVID-19 testing sites to serve the high numbers of people in the county hit by the coronavirus.

The KCMO Health Department also plans to move testing sites indoors. It’s now in the process of identifying indoor testing locations. Thompson said the department’s goal is to have at least one indoor testing location in each council district. In areas of the city with higher case rates, the department may add additional testing sites. The KCMO Health Department plans to convert indoor test sites into vaccination sites once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.

“It is a challenge finding spaces where we will be able to test people and maintain social distancing within that facility, as well as finding locations that have a price point that is realistic,” Thompson said. 

He says the KCMO Health Department has received limited financial resources for its COVID-19 response.

“We still have not received any dollars from Platte County for serving Kansas City residents in that county, although we have continued to serve those residents,” Thompson said.

“Some additional resources in terms of funding would be helpful.”

Free community testing in Kansas City

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.