TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly plans to dedicate initial shipments of COVID-19 vaccine to give high-risk health care staff working coronavirus units and the vulnerable residents of nursing homes the first round of treatment in December and push ahead with a campaign to convince people to follow health advisories.
Kelly said during a news briefing Wednesday at the Capitol vaccine delivery would begin in Kansas by mid-December and the supply would be distributed throughout the state. There should be enough to initiate for vaccination process for approximately 150,000 people, with the second shot delivered in early 2021.
After addressing phase one recipients based on federal guidelines, the governor said second-phase vaccinations would target medical workers at low risk of infection and Kansans over age 65. The third phase would cover people from 18 to 65 years old, she said, because the vaccine hasn’t been approved for children.
“We have laid our framework to prioritize vaccine delivery to those on the front lines of our pandemic response and those disproportionately affected by the virus,” Kelly said. “We intend to protect the greatest number of Kansans, foster economic recovery and get our kids back into our school buildings as quickly and safely as possible.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is coordinating with 200 health care providers to deal with in-person vaccination of Kansans. Vaccines — people will need two doses each — will be free of charge, but medical providers will be allowed to assess an administrative fee for giving the shot. The governor said no person would be turned away if unable to afford the fee.
“We created a timeline for vaccine distribution,” the governor said. “Obviously, adherence to our timeline will be dependent on receiving the materials from the companies. We’ll work to ensure that as many phase-one groups as possible are vaccinated by the end of the month.”
On Wednesday, KDHE reported 119 more Kansans infected with COVID-19 had been added to the fatality total since the previous update Monday. Not all of those people died during the two-day period, but were added due to reviews of death certificates or when local health officials submitted batches of fatalities.
The new report from KDHE indicated 1,679 Kansans infected with the coronavirus had died since March. The Wednesday update showed the total of infected Kansas had reached 162,446 and hospitalizations grew to 5,290. Here were KDHE’s cumulative totals Oct. 30: 1,007 deaths, 85,181 cases and 3,752 hospitalizations.
“This news of an upcoming vaccine does not mean that we can take our foot off the gas. We must continue to encourage widespread testing, wear face coverings and employ other mitigation strategies and listen to advice from our public health experts,” Kelly said.
The Democratic governor said 27 local public health officials had left their jobs since the pandemic began in March. Some departed due to intense hostility expressed by people who oppose mask, school or business restrictions adopted by local and state officials, she said. The governor said these health officials had worked long hours under immense pressure to keep communities safe and deserved the respect of people they served.
Lee Norman, secretary of the state Department of Health and Environment, said one estimate was that 30% of people wouldn’t initially embrace a vaccine. He expects a portion of the population to observe wider use of the vaccines before to committing.
“Some people are vaccine-hesitant about every vaccine on the planet and we probably won’t do much to sway them,” said Norman, a physician.
Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, said COVID-19 vaccines were moving ahead with early-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That’s not the same thing as FDA-approved and consequently KU Heath System won’t require its employees to take the vaccine, he said.
“We authorize the early use of it because we’re in a pandemic and we need some type of new tools to try and help combat that,” Stites said. “So, while we are confident or hopefully confident that the vaccines are going to be effective and safe, we don’t have all the data yet.”
Kevin Ault, a physician at KU Health System and a member of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advisory panel reviewing COVID-19 vaccines, said ongoing safety monitoring of vaccines would include use of cellular telephone applications allowing a recipient to promptly report side effects.
“If you get the vaccine,” he said, “you’ll be able to send you know any adverse events you have. Especially the health care workers, we want them to sign up for that.”
State and hospital officials predicted a surge in patients as cooler weather arrived this year and with dozens of counties resisting public health recommendations issued by Kelly and endorsed by KDHE for people to wear a mask, social distance, wash hands and avoid large gatherings. In response to uptick in COVID-19 infection throughout the state and potential of a post-Thanksgiving rise in cases, about half of Kansas’ 105 counties have adopted the governor’s mask requirement.
Physician David Wild, vice president of performance improvement at KU Health System, said 70% of the Kansas City, Kansas hospital’s 159 coronavirus patients were from the metropolitan area and the others were transfers from the region. Some had to be flown to the hospital, a process that carried additional risk.
About half of the KU hospital’s 100 patients with acute COVID-19 were in intensive-care beds and 29 had been placed on a ventilator. Capacity issues led KU Health Systems this week to free up ICU beds to accommodate complex health needs of patients by transporting some from the main hospital to a satellite facility, he said.
“We are only transferring patients who are carefully selected and evaluated and are able to be moved safely by ambulance,” Wild said. “It’s a good example of the ways we are trying really, really hard and sometimes creatively to manage capacity, to make sure everyone who needs care in our community can get it.”
Wild said he expected another increase in COVID-19 patients in the next week or so due to exposures during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Heather Harris, medical director of HaysMed campus of the KU Health System, said half of the hospital’s staffed beds were filled by COVID-19 patients. Since April, the facility has cared for 300 coronavirus patients, but most arrived during November. Last month, she said, the hospital denied 103 transfers from other hospitals. That step had been taken only twice previously in the past 14 years, she said.
“It’s definitely an intense situation for the hospital and the nurses and physicians,” Harris said. “I think some of the rural areas felt they were protected due to their geography from the virus. Clearly, that’s not the case.”
This story has been updated to include a clarification from the office of Gov. Laura Kelly that the plan would be to initate the two-shot vaccination process for 150,000 people in December. The second shot for these individuals would occur in early 2021.