The number of individuals hospitalized due to COVID-19 continues to increase, KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said Wednesday, although Kansas compares favorably to its regional neighbors on many key pandemic metrics.


Tuesday marked the highest number of hospital admissions related to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with 81 hospitalizations.


While the average age of those infected continues to drop, Norman said, that has not been borne out in data related to hospitalizations.


"The number of cases being hospitalized is increasing just because we're having so many more total cases," he said.


The state saw 1,244 new cases since Monday, as well as 17 deaths reported in that timeframe.


And the state continues to sit in the red zone for both cases and deaths per 100,000 residents, according to weekly reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.


Most of the counties that the White House has deemed to be seeing the most acute rise in cases are in western Kansas, with 10 counties in the northwest corner of the state.


The relatively sharp uptick of cases in that region underscores the presence of community spread, Norman said.


Kansas, however, is outpacing its peers in the region, notably Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa, on key COVID-19 metrics. And its testing rates compare favorably to the national average, although officials have said they want to continue to improve.


State lawmakers have been frustrated that a plan designed to dramatically expand the state’s testing capacity hasn’t moved more quickly.


The blueprint, which Gov. Laura Kelly said was getting into motion last week, leverages lab space at Wichita State University, as well as in suburban Kansas City, to increase testing in the state’s urban areas.


More targeted testing will also be coming to rural areas, K-12 schools and nursing homes. All of this will be subsidized using federal relief funding.


But Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said during a Legislative Budget Committee hearing earlier in the day that officials need to move more quickly in order to allow communities and businesses to properly understand the scope of COVID-19 in their midst.


"I am just very frustrated and very disappointed that we have not at least let (Wichita State) and the lab start in our two most urban areas. And they know what they’re doing. And they’re signing the documents that say ’we do it wrong, we’ll pay it back,’ " McGinn said. "We have to keep our businesses open now."


Norman defended the timeline, saying that the administration has been waiting for legal formalities to be sorted. It would also be supported by 870,000 rapid tests that are due to arrive from the federal government.


The state should see the plan bear fruit later in October, he said.


"We do need to accelerate the pace, and we're finally getting the resources to do that," Norman said.


The goal of using the federal funds to support testing was to reach 10,000 tests per day, something Norman believed was well within reach.


"In our state lab we do about 2,000 to 3,000 (tests) per day and we only make up about 30% of the testing going on in the state," he said. "You do the math."


That will be boosted by the ongoing use of wastewater surveillance testing, where sewage can be sampled for COVID-19’s genetic material in an effort to better understand how widespread cases may be in a given community.


The state has partnered with the University of Kansas to test the practice in suburban Kansas City, Kan. Additional work to sample towns in rural areas is ongoing and will likely be finished by Thanksgiving.


Norman acknowledged the procedure is not a "silver bullet" but said it could be useful as the state prepares for a potential second wave of cases going forward.


"I would still say at this point we're getting more experienced with it, we think it could be an important adjunct for early recognition of outbreaks," Norman said.