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Missouri’s rape kit testing effort continues despite coronavirus

Nearly 500 rape kits — just a dent in Missouri’s backlog — have been sent off for testing this year through the attorney general’s SAFE Kits Initiative, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could alter the process. 

About 80 kits are expected to be collected and shipped off for testing by the Camden County Sheriff’s Office in less than two weeks. Precautions will be in place to ensure safe social distancing, including a makeshift drive-thru area for officers to drop off materials without having to leave their vehicles. 

But another shipment planned for mid-May in O’Fallon was postponed due to health concerns related to COVID-19, according to Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the attorney general. 

More than 3,500 people in Missouri have tested positive for coronavirus so far, and 77 individuals have died as of Thursday afternoon. 

An audit conducted by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office late last year identified 6,157 untested rape kits and an additional 830 that could need to be retested across the state. Prior to the audit, Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched the SAFE Kits Initiative to identify, collect, and test kits throughout Missouri. 

“We’re taking every necessary adjustment to ensure that the kits continue to be sent for testing on pace while mitigating travel and contact risks,” Nuelle told The Missouri Times. 

The Attorney General’s Office is “evaluating” the current process and considering whether adjustments can be made to the shipping framework during the global health crisis. The office is also considering whether to hold county-level, rather than regional, collection events. 

Missouri is working with a lab in Virginia to process the kits. The lab has been deemed essential in Virginia, and the testing process has continued at a regular pace, Nuelle said. Marshall University, which reviews the lab results, is also operating at a normal level. 

“No shutdown in testing is expected, and we should continue with the previous timeline,” he said. 

On the legislative side, a Senate bill that has bundled multiple pieces of legislation pertaining to sexual assault victims passed out of Fiscal Oversight when lawmakers briefly convened in Jefferson City this week. 

SB 569, championed by Republican state Rep. Andrew Koenig, streamlines the process for testing rape kits and makes it easier for victims to track the kits’ status. The bill was a result of the attorney general’s November audit. 

The legislation has since grown to include the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights,” which establishes certain protections for victims, and a measure creating a statewide telehealth network to mentor, train, and provide assistance to medical providers who conduct forensic examinations. The latter has been a labor of love for Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp. 

Koenig told The Missouri Times Wednesday that he still sees a path forward for the bill this session — even as this legislative session’s future remains uncertain due to coronavirus. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.