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Kansas City Health Department Addresses Confusion Over Its Number Of Coronavirus Test Kits

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Screengrab from City of Kansas City, Missouri
Dr. Rex Archer told Kansas City officials on Thursday that he was still awaiting five kits to test for possible cases of the new coronavirus.

This story was updated March 6, 2020 at 5:08 p.m. to include a response from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

During a week of growing fears about the spread of the coronavirus, Kansas City health officials struggled to communicate clearly about the nature of the city's ability to test residents.

In a briefing to the Kansas City Council on Thursday morning, Rex Archer, head of the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department, said he wanted to make something clear: The city, so far, hadn’t received any of the kits it had requested to test for the new coronavirus.

And he was worried that Vice President Mike Pence's remarks earlier that week, about the availability of tests, had been misleading.

“That created a real challenge when the vice president told everybody they could get tested,” Archer told council members.

“What we don’t want to do, though, is have people thinking they can get tested, going to the emergency rooms just because of that, and then getting exposed to that or other things when they actually should be staying at home,” Archer said.

Later on Thursday, Pence admitted to reporters that demand for the kits exceeded supply. But also later on Thursday, Archer confirmed to KCUR that five kits had arrived that afternoon.

What remained unclear was whether those five kits were enough to test five people or thousands of people.

Seeking to confirm the city's capacity for testing, KCUR asked Archer whether one kit tests one person. "Yes," he said.

This appeared to contradict information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says each kit can test approximately 700 to 800 specimens.

In response to a follow-up email requesting clarification, health department public information officer Michelle Pekarsky wrote in an e-mail: “one kit, one person.”

She went on to explain that each kit is enough to obtain three different specimens from one person ("nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal and sputum" — basically from the nose, throat and sputum), which the health department sends to the state for testing.

The confusion may stem from terminology.

The health department says the kits were delivered on Thursday are "collection device kits." These are different from the "lab testing kits" at state-run laboratories that can run tests in batches. 

"Inside the kit we receive are: correct swabs to use to collect from these nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal and sputum areas and different viral media to put the swabs into so the kit can be transported to the state," Pekarsky explained in an email. 

"Again, the kits we get only contain the devices to collect the specimens from one person," she said.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services confirmed that the Missouri State Public Health Laboratory has capacity for testing 800 patients. 

Archer has also been inconsistent in his sense of urgency about the virus.

He raised alarm in recent weeks over a lack of federal funding for the local health department, saying that low funding had left Kansas City unprepared to deal with more than a few isolated cases.

But at a press conference March 3, he downplayed those concerns.

“Anytime that you have a new challenge, you may at first think, ‘Boy, I need more resources,’ but the reality is this – right now – is not that different than influenza.”

The virus has not been identified in Kansas or Missouri, yet dozens of people in the region are currently being monitored for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and health officials say the appearance of the virus in our area is inevitable.

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and the city hall reporter for KCUR 89.3 Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.