Kansas could move to Phase 3 of vaccination ‘soon.’ Legislators remain frustrated.
Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that she was optimistic the state would move to Phase 3 of its vaccination plan "soon," although such an announcement could still be weeks away.
Meanwhile, a conflict is brewing with Republican legislators who are critical of how her administration has treated counties looking to move forward in administering shots.
Conservatives pushed back after it was revealed that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment had threatened to cut off vaccine distribution to Riley County if health officials moved to a different phase of the vaccination process before the rest of the state was ready.
The state is currently in Phase 2 of the vaccination plan, which covers Kansans age 65 and older, as well as essential workers, such as teachers, law enforcement and meatpacking staff. Phase 3 would include individuals with underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to serious COVID-19-related issues.
Kelly said Wednesday that the state would move into Phase 3 by early April at the latest, but she noted the federal government has been increasing the number of doses sent to Kansas, which could speed things along.
"We have very high hopes that we'll be able to move quicker than that," she said at a Statehouse news conference.
But Riley County, as well as Sedgwick County, wanted to move on to vaccinating Phase 3 populations earlier, something KDHE wouldn't allow them to do with most parts of the state still in Phase 2.
One Republican legislator, Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, has channeled his objections into a bill, introduced Wednesday in the Kansas Senate, that would require KDHE to allow counties to move vaccination phases at will.
"Honestly, it is almost like blackmail or extortion. If you don't follow our guidelines we aren't going to send you any more (vaccines)," Hilderbrand said in an interview. "All because they want to move to the next level ... I think they should have that flexibility, especially if they are doing it right and are past Phase 2. Why penalize them for doing a good job?"
KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said earlier this week that several counties, generally in rural, less populated areas, are ready to move on in the vaccination process. They were "on pause" until other areas could catch up, he said.
Kelly echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
"We are following the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. We are trying to get people in Phase 2 vaccinated," she said. "Phase 3 is not very far behind, right now, so my guess is the bill is unnecessary ... I really think this is one of those cases where there are other things the Legislature ought to be focused on."
But Hilderbrand pointed to the state's national ranking for vaccine administration per capita, with Kansas consistently lagging behind most of its peers. He said it was silly that counties would be blocked from immunizing more individuals in light of that data.
"If we are consistently last or near last in vaccinating Kansans, we shouldn't be stopping counties who are doing a good job in getting people vaccinated," he said.
Kelly has pinned the blame on a series of technical glitches in data reporting to the CDC. Norman said Wednesday that the problems have largely been isolated, including a data entry error.
There also is a backlog of doses that have yet to be administered that are accounting for the lower figures, he said — a byproduct of delayed vaccine shipments due to bitterly cold weather last month.
That meant health departments eventually got twice as many doses as normal once the weather warmed up and vaccines started coming in again.
To rectify this, the state was mobilizing 15 members of the Kansas National Guard to Sedgwick County, one of the areas most affected by the delays. That comes in addition to IT fixes, which the Kelly administration announced last month.
"We hope to start seeing quite different numbers reported to the CDC COVID site in the next week or so," Norman said.
As for the legislative challenge to Kelly and KDHE, it is likely that the governor would veto the bill if it reached her desk. Hilderbrand also acknowledged the possiblity that the state will have changed phases by the time the bill passes out of the Legislature, although he remained hopeful it could be considered by the Senate as soon as next week.
In the meantime, Kelly urged patience.
"I like to think that Kansans are all in this together," she said.