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GOP lawmaker pushes plan to undo Kansas policy on vaccines


March 11, 2021

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker in Kansas outlined a measure Wednesday that would overturn Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's policy of withholding doses of COVID-19 vaccines from counties wanting to move to a new phase of inoculations before the rest of the state.

Senate health committee Chair Richard Hilderbrand, of Galena, called the policy "blackmail or extortion." The state Department of Health and Environment calls withholding vaccine doses an "enforcement mechanism" and Kelly says the goal is to "keep the train running as smoothly as we possibly can."

Hilderbrand's bill would allow counties to set their own vaccination schedules. It follows several months of widespread criticism of Kelly from the GOP-controlled Legislature over what they view as a slow administration of shots.

"Counties that are doing it right and doing it the right way should be able to have some leeway," Hilderbrand told The Associated Press.

Some counties were upset last week when the state wouldn't let them start vaccinating people under 65 with chronic or serious medical conditions that would put them at risk of serious complications or death if they are infected with COVID-19. Those people are covered in the third phase of the vaccine distribution, and the state is still in the second phase.

As of Wednesday, about 491,431 Kansas residents or 16.9% of the state's 2.9 million residents had received at least one vaccine shot, and 740,850 doses had been administered, the state health department reported. That's 67% of the 1.1 million doses the state has received.

Kelly and state health officials say the state's inoculation numbers have been underreported and are almost certainly higher.

Kelly has said the state wanted to hold back doses to make sure healthcare systems in smaller counties are not overwhelmed by residents from larger counties that have yet to complete phase two.

"We set up the schedule and priorities based on the recognized risks and health concerns, so it is important that we get all of the folks in phase two done because we know they are at higher risk," she said at a news conference Tuesday.

House health committee Chair Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said counties can limit shots to their residents.

Meanwhile, the state's two Republican U.S. senators have taken different positions on how best to distribute the vaccines, The Kansas City Star reports.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday that health officials should deliver a single dose of vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer as widely as possible rather than ensuring that their required second doses are administered on the established timetable.

Marshall's recommendation runs contrary to the protocol established by the federal government. Asked about the editorial, Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said: "I would defer to science and medicine."

Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the state health department, also disagreed with Marshall's proposal.

"It's not even approved for that regimen so we're not going to do something that's not FDA approved," Norman said.

Republicans have signaled that they'll make Kelly's handling of the coronavirus pandemic an issue when she runs for reelection in 2022. They've criticized the stay-at-home order she imposed for five weeks last spring, her closing of all K-12 school buildings from mid-March 2020 to the end of that spring semester, and her unsuccessful attempt to limit indoor religious worship services.

Kelly has defended her actions as necessary to check COVID-19. Another 778 COVID-19 cases were recorded between Monday and Wednesday, raising the state's total since the pandemic began to 297,229. Thirty-five new deaths were reported, raising the total death toll to 4,851.

The governor's actions and local COVID-19 rules have prompted a push to set up a $100 million state fund with future federal COVID-19 relief dollars to pay claims from businesses claiming to be hurt by the restrictions, The Wichita Eagle reports. The attorney general would administer the fund and the governor and legislative leaders would review claims.

A Senate committee plans to have a hearing on the proposal Thursday.


Hollingworth reported from Mission, Kansas.


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