Kansas governor tests negative for coronavirus after House speaker says he caught virus

By: and - August 7, 2020 10:39 am
Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Kansas Health System, answers questions during a virtual media briefing Friday. (Screenshot by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Kansas Health System, answers questions during a virtual media briefing Friday. (Screenshot by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday following disclosure by House Speaker Ron Ryckman that he had been hospitalized for a week with coronavirus in July.

A political firestorm erupted on Thursday following Ryckman’s disclosure that he tested positive for the coronavirus on July 13. He was criticized for delaying for more than three weeks an announcement that he contracted the virus. He also was denounced for attending a July 29 meeting of the State Finance Council, which included the governor and top Democratic and Republican legislators.

Kelly, a Democrat, said Ryckman’s actions when personally confronted with COVID-19 were reckless and dangerous. The House speaker and his allies accused the governor of fear mongering and public shaming.

It’s unclear whether the Kansas Department of Health and Environment intends to recommend the dozens of legislative staff, reporters and lobbyists attending that July 29 meeting at the Capitol also should be tested for coronavirus.

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Kansas Health System, said Ryckman was probably safe to attend a public meeting with the governor and others after recovering from COVID-19.

Health safety guidelines by KDHE and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate it is safe to end isolation 10 days after the onset of symptoms and if the individual hasn’t had a fever in three days. However, CDC guidelines, updated on July 20, say patients with “severe illness” may need to isolate for up to 20 days.

“The best data that we have would suggest that you probably are not infectious after about eight to 10 days after symptom onset,” Hawkinson said. “So it is less likely that he is contagious based on the little amount of data that we do have about that and the ability to actually culture infectious virus.”

Ryckman said he met CDC and KDHE criteria before attending the meeting of the State Finance Council with the governor and other lawmakers. He first felt symptoms the evening after he took the COVID-19 test as a precaution. He spent a week in the hospital, then isolated at home, tested negative for the virus and received clearance from his doctor before showing up at the meeting.

The meeting was held at the Statehouse in the former courtroom for the Kansas Supreme Court, with ample area for attendees to distance themselves from one another. Everybody in attendance wore a mask, but Ryckman, Kelly and others removed their masks after they were seated so their comments would be more clear to people listening to the internet livestream.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who wore a mask in public for the first time at that July 29 meeting, said the governor “shamefully attacked” Ryckman for attending the meeting and owes the speaker an apology.

“The governor continuously lectures and scolds Kansans to follow medical advice but when Speaker Ron Ryckman did so, the governor used the opportunity for her own political gain,” Hawkins said. “Blatantly dishonest and self-serving actions like this are why Kansans have lost faith in Governor Kelly’s ability to lead our state.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said said he was frustrated that Ryckman apparently informed some people about his diagnosis prior to going public with the information. Hensley, who participated in State Finance Council and Legislative Coordinating Council meetings with Ryckman during July, wasn’t aware Ryckman contracted the virus until nearly a month after the House speaker presumes he was exposed July 10.

Hensley said he would seek a COVID-19 test as a consequence of controversy created by Ryckman’s belated revelation.

“Whether it’s underplaying the threat of COVID-19, covering up his diagnosis or lying about following the health guidelines, Speaker Ryckman has proven throughout the pandemic that he can’t be trusted,” Hensley said.

Erin Sorrell, a member of the Center for Global Health Science and Security and assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University, said recovery time from COVID-19 can vary. Most experts recommend patients isolate until at least 10 days from the date of a positive test, she said, and until they have no symptoms or fever.

“People who have recovered should still wear a mask and practice social distancing since it is unclear how long immunity lasts,” Sorrell said.

Hawkinson, the KU Health System physician in Kansas City, Kan., said the governor and lawmakers should have kept their masks on during the meeting to follow the “gold standard” for safety, even if Ryckman met criteria for ending isolation.

“Does that mean that you can go out the fancy free and not adhere to public health guidance, such as not meeting in large groups, not social distancing, or physical distancing and not wearing mass? Absolutely not,” Hawkinson said. “We don’t know the full implications of having the infection once and possibly being reinfected.”

In a statement, Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Vicki Hiatt said it was irresponsible of Ryckman to conceal his COVID-19 diagnosis. She criticized his decision send a letter to Republican House colleagues about contracting the virus, but not sharing that document with his Democratic Party peers in the House. In Kansas, the House speaker serves in the top political position for the entire 125-member House — not simply as leader of House Republicans.

“Speaker Ryckman has blocked Governor Kelly’s efforts to implement commonsense safety measures protecting all Kansans,” Hiatt said. “COVID-19 is spiking in our communities, rural and urban alike, and when leaders refuse to follow the public health guidelines and hide information on party lines, they put all of us at risk.”

Meanwhile, 3rd District congressional candidate Amanda Adkins, a Republican, said a person who attended her Tuesday primary victory event in Johnson County tested positive for COVID-19. Adkins’ campaign said they were in the process of notifying people who attended the gathering.

Her campaign statement said the individual was wearing a mask at the event and was asymptomatic for the virus.

“The Adkins campaign policy continues to follow CDC guidelines. The campaign recommended that victory party guests wear masks and socially distance as possible. Out of an abundance of caution, Amanda Adkins will be getting tested and self-quarantining,” the statement said.

Adkins is the Republican nominee in the district served by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.