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State health department could pay private labs more than $1 million to ramp up testing

DHSS building
ABC 17 News


The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services could pay more than $1 million to private labs in increase testing capacity as the state begins to relax social distancing rules.

The contracts obtained by ABC 17 News show that at least three labs, including one in mid-Missouri, will help the state run thousands of tests a week. DHSS also plans to buy 10,000 testing kits from Quest Diagnostics for a "community sampling" event this week. Another lab, Viracor-Eurofins, will provide 1,500 swabs for free this week so long as the state uses the lab to run the test, and up to 12,500 swabs through May 9.

Testing capacity is one of the four "pillars" Gov. Mike Parson relied on to begin re-opening the state. Parson and DHSS director Dr. Randall Williams said they want the state to be able to run 50,000 tests a week.

Williams said the testing kits the department bought will first be used in Buchanan County, where health officials conducted about 1,100 tests in the last two days. Williams said 4,000 tests would help create a "snapshot study" of the state in various different locations.

"Our goal going forward in what we call a comprehensive testing strategy in June, July and August is to use those tests to do surveillance and be able to handle outbreaks," Williams said.

The labs

DHSS has at least three contracts with private labs to run tests for COVID-19 - PTC Laboratories in Columbia, Viracor-Eurofins in Lee's Summit and Quest Diagnostics in Lenexa, Kansas. All three agreed to run tests for the Missouri State Public Health Lab at different prices. PTC Labs runs test at $125 a test, Viracor runs tests at $100 apiece and Quest charges $69 for a test.

The state amended its existing contract with Quest to purchase the testing kits. Quest, then Boyce & Bynum, won a contract in 2017 for various testing services for the state. Stacia Dawson, an employee with the Office of Administration, wrote that it could simply amend the contract if it was "in the best interest of the state and does not significantly alter the original intent or scope of the contract."

Quest provided DHSS some of the test kits for "community sampling" to take place from April 25 to April 29. The lab should have results back to the state no later than May 2. All told, Quest will charge $100 for the kits, delivery and test processing. The state would pay $1,000,000 to Quest if it ends up using all 10,000 tests.

It's unclear if PTC Labs and Viracor faced any other bidders. Bid information could not be immediately found on the state's website.

PTC Labs spokesman Tim McCarty said the exact number of tests it has run for the state would need to come from DHSS. McCarty previously said it had the capacity to run 20,000 tests a week.

Viracor's bid information shows that the lab can perform 1,500 tests a day starting April 27. The lab hoped to provide results for a test within 24 to 48 hours of receiving the sample. The company also promised to give the state 1,500 swabs to DHSS this week, 4,000 swabs next week and 7,000 swabs a week starting May 9.

If used to its maximum capacity all seven days of the week, the state could end up paying $1.05 million weekly to Viracor.

The strategy

Health officials have promoted an aggressive testing policy as a condition of rolling back social distancing.

Williams said the department has tested a large number of people in a given area where an outbreak is suspected. The state sent an Abbott ID NOW test machine to nearly two dozen counties to further test people showing symptoms. About 4,000 tests would be done in areas of the state under tested, like parts of Kansas City and swaths of southeast Missouri, Williams said on Monday.

Thousands of tests are being done in northwest Missouri's Buchanan County, where at least two Triumph Foods plant employees tested positive for COVID-19. Mary Robertson, spokesperson for the county seat of St. Joseph, said the Missouri National Guard helped set up a testing site for the nearly 3,000 workers to go through. Robertson said she expected the testing site to be set up through Friday.

The Buchanan County testing is an example of the state "boxing in" cases. Williams said the strategy will help the state and health care providers get a sense of how the virus is spreading in a particular community. Instead of testing just symptomatic people tied to places like nursing homes or large work places, the state would instead test everyone there.

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Lucas Geisler

Lucas Geisler anchors 6 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.. shows for ABC 17 News and reports on the investigative stories.


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