TOPEKA — The Kansas director of emergency management said Tuesday state purchases of $64 million in personal protective equipment during the pandemic included substandard N95 respirator masks and bogus surgical gowns that were little more than plastic bags with openings for a person’s arms.
Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard and the state director of emergency management, told an interim committee of the Kansas Legislature about the acquisition of flawed equipment acquired since the pandemic emerged in March. The disclosure, which apparently surfaced Monday during a closed meeting with legislators, came as the committee considered possible amendments to the state’s emergency management act.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, said the volume of equipment purchased by local, state and federal government agencies in response to spread of COVID-19 represented as an opportunity for fraud. He speculated greedy individuals may have an interest in perpetuating the pandemic to score big profits.
“Is that a real possibility?” Pyle said. “I have some real concerns.”
Weishaar said a portion of deficient or unusable supplies making it to Kansas went back to manufacturers or the federal government. The not-as-advertised N95 masks can be used in instances when a lower level of protection is required, he said.
Pyle picked up the wasteful-spending thread during testimony by Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“Are there any guidelines that have been established or put in place?” the senator said.
Norman said KDHE’s laboratory purchased only equipment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. KDHE decided in March not to invest millions of dollars in doses of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, which were touted by politicians and other individuals as beneficial in dealing with COVID-19.
“We chose to take a pass on it at that time,” he said. “I think we were right. Time will tell.”
He said he referred to the attorney general’s office evidence a Kansas hospital was marketing an antibody test for COVID-19 that falsely concluded someone testing positive for the virus wouldn’t come down with it again.
KDHE has reported more than 38,000 positive tests, 426 fatalities and 2,100 hospitalizations related to the coronavirus in Kansas. Currently, KDHE says the rate of positive tests hovered at 10.3%, despite a national average of 5.3%.
Norman said hospitalizations and deaths were trending downward and that the capacity of Kansas hospitals had bed and ventilator capacity to deal with a surge. He also said KDHE had no plans to require Kansans to take a COVID-19 vaccine.
Meanwhile, the University of Kansas released an updated testing summary that showed 222 positives among 19,400 students, staff and faculty tested in conjunction of fall semester classes. Of that total, KU said, 133 positives for COVID-19 were among members of Greek sororities or fraternities at KU.
Rep. Eric Smith, the Burlington Republican, said he was frustrated by news reporting that declared people who visited a lake together and subsequently came down with COVID-19 acquired the virus at the lake. He said no one can definitively say those people were infected at the lake.
He said it would be wonderful if the state could test 60% or 70% of its 3 million residents for COVID-19 to determine more precisely status of the virus in Kansas. KDHE says the state’s testing capacity ranges from 8,500 to 9,000 tests per day.
Shawnee Republican Sen. Mike Thompson questioned the work of KDHE and pointed to the prevalence of false positives from coronavirus testing, the economic damage of temporarily closing Kansas businesses and the state’s burn through approximately $1 billion in unemployment benefits.
“In my estimation,” Thompson said, “we’re scaring people unnecessarily.”
Thompson also said he was concerned about research arguing that wearing a mask lowered a person’s oxygen level in the blood and made those individuals more susceptible to coronavirus. He suggested mask mandates recommended by the governor and local officials amounted to business suppression.
During the hearing at the Capitol, Weishaar said he would appreciate the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly take steps to amend the emergency law to strike a provision granting the adjutant general authority to assume law enforcement duties in an emergency. He said it made sense for the adjutant general to assist local authorities in securing an area struck by disaster, such as the city of Greensburg after it was flattened by a tornado.
“To me, that doesn’t mean I’m going to write a speeding ticket,” he said. “I’m not a law enforcement authority.”
Abilene Rep. John Barker, a Republican, pushed back against the adjutant general’s recommendation. He said it made more sense for the state’s emergency response officials to possess broad authority during a crisis.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, said lawmakers need to clarify lines of authority running from the Legislature, governor, state Board of Education, local school boards and county governments when decisions must be made during a pandemic. There needs to be clarity when evaluating necessity of school closures, delaying start of classes and wearing a mask, she said.
She said holding students out of school classes threatened to impose a “COVID slide” in terms of academic prowess. Legislature needs to accommodate parents who aren’t satisfied with lack of in-person instruction in public schools so their children can enroll children in alternative schools, she said.
“Take into consideration the social-emotional wellness of our students, the sadness that many of them are experiencing, because they don’t get to physically go to school, they don’t get to physically play in their athletics,” Williams said. “Compound all those together, we’ve got a serious situation and that impacts how the Legislature looks at the emergency management act.”
Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, said the majority of the state’s 286 public school districts and 80 private school systems would start the new academic year with face-to-face instruction.
He said educators should rely on the science of COVID-19 to guide their approach to learning and to be nimble in how they responded to instructional challenges.
“Some kids do really well on virtual learning. But they’re the minority,” Watson said. “The vast majority do best with a caring teacher in a brick-and-mortar school. Public or private. Statistically I can show you test scores, I can show you graduation rates, I can show you post-secondary success.”