Former HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius: ‘God help us’ with vaccine rollout

Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday she was concerned about the Trump administration's ability to safely roll out a COVID-19 vaccine once proven effective through clinical trials. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday she was concerned about the Trump administration's ability to safely roll out a COVID-19 vaccine once proven effective through clinical trials. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

TOPEKA — Former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday the undersupply of personal protective equipment and of rapid testing for COVID-19 raised likelihood of Trump administration problems proving efficacy of vaccines and distributing treatments to a virus-weary nation.

Sebelius said on a video conference with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids and U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier that nursing homes continued to struggle with shortages of PPE to shield vulnerable people from the virus. Rapid testing materials for the coronavirus aren’t available in places where needed, she said.

Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and HHS secretary under President Barack Obama, was critical of President Donald Trump for focusing on political elements of the pandemic rather than on science of the public health crisis.

“God help us when we get to a vaccine — a safe and effective vaccine,” she said. “Who can we trust, first of all, to say if it’s safe and effective? Secondly, can we trust the distribution system to be transparent and equitable?”

Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius says Kansas is "way behind the curve" in terms of expanding Medicaid, a decision that has during the past decade blocked $4 billion in federal investment in the state's health care delivery system. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius says Kansas is “way behind the curve” in terms of expanding Medicaid, a decision that has during the past decade blocked $4 billion in federal investment in the state’s health care delivery system. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Trump has said laboratories remained on track to deliver a vaccine “before the end of the year and maybe even before November 1.” Voters go to the polls Nov. 3 to decide whether he earned a second term as president.

On Tuesday, executives of nine companies working on a vaccine pledged not to seek federal approval before Phase 3 clinical trials demonstrated efficacy of their vaccines.

Sebelius said the federal government had a responsibility to outline for the public a workable approach to determining priority recipients of vaccine. It’s likely first in line would include medically fragile people and first-response workers in contact with individuals potentially infected with COVID-19.

“Right now we’re sort of in an every person for him or herself,” she said. “That’s a very dangerous place to be with a virus that is still circulating wildly and killing people each and every day.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 46,900 positive tests for COVID-19 as well as 2,440 hospitalizations and 485 fatalities linked to the virus in Kansas. COVID-19 has been found in all the state’s 105 counties, but 10 counties have registered more than 1,000 cases. Urban centers of Johnson, Wyandotte and Sedgwick counties account for more than 23,000 cases.

Kelly said she was committed to pressing the Kansas Legislature to expand eligibility for Medicaid to about 130,000 low- or moderate-income Kansans.

The Legislature approved an expansion bill in 2017, but the measure was vetoed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. The states surrounding Kansas — Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma — have implemented or authorized Medicaid expansion.

“I want to assure everybody that we won’t give up,” Kelly said. “We’re going to get Medicaid expanded in Kansas.”

Davids, who is seeking re-election in the 3rd District against Republican Amanda Adkins, said she was committed to working in Washington, D.C., to block dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and to advance policy reducing the cost of prescription medicines. She said Medicaid expansion would benefit Kansans who lost jobs and health insurance during the pandemic.

Bollier is a retired physician running against Republican Roger Marshall for an open U.S. Senate seat. She said expansion of Medicaid would improve affordability and accessibility of health insurance as well as cover a greater share of medical costs absorbed by hospitals serving the uninsured. Marshall, the 1st District congressman, has opposed Medicaid expansion.

“Our businesses need this,” Bollier said. “Not every business can afford to provide health care coverage for their employees.”