Republican frustrated after Kansas health department opts out of hearings

Gov. Laura Kelly says vaccine distribution, case numbers trending in right direction

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, said he hoped to hear from KDHE at a meeting of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, but the agency canceled its appearance. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Republican legislator voiced frustration with the state health department for ditching a planned presentation to the Senate health committee amid distrust with the governor’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy.

A representative for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was set to speak before the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Tuesday morning, but legislators received notice Monday they could not spare anyone.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican and chairman of the Senate panel, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“We had been looking forward to having them come in and answer some questions, and they aren’t doing it. Maybe next week,” Hilderbrand said, adding that he remained skeptical of the state’s progress on vaccinations. “We knew in December or November this was coming, so why don’t we have a strong plan until January? We need to be more proactive, not reactive.”

This frustration comes after Hildebrand and other GOP legislators had called for more frequent appearances from KDHE before lawmakers. While both vaccine and case numbers appear to be trending in the right direction, Republicans are still dubious of the state’s vaccination plan.

KDHE also canceled appearances at a House committee this week but plans to make staff available for a single, joint hearing next week.

Between Monday and Wednesday, KDHE recorded 4,539 new cases and 100 new deaths, bringing totals since the beginning of the pandemic to 252,041 cases and 3,355 deaths across the state.

Thus far, 93,885 Kansans have been vaccinated, and the state received nearly 70,000 doses this week alone.

“We got a whole lot of vaccine in and a whole bunch of distribution going on,” said KDHE secretary Lee Norman. “We do not want to have delays getting the vaccine in people’s arms. That’s all hands on deck, so it was just a question of timing.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Olathe Democrat serving on the Senate health committee, said she had difficulty getting into the meeting virtually. Given the early season technology difficulties, she said, hearing from KDHE in the future may be better.

“My thought is that given how we are on a new system with WebEx that they may have had trouble getting on even if they had tried,” Holscher said. “So we are probably better served to have them come in a different time.”

Gov. Laura Kelly in a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse said Kansas is currently one of only three states experiencing a downward trend in cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

This comes just weeks after Kansas was ranked last in vaccine distribution according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting system, which the Kelly administration attributed to problems with data entry. The governor said the state now ranks 17th, among the top tier of states.

As cases trend down, vaccine distribution will continue to ramp up, Kelly said. In response, the state is joining a national pharmacy partnership to increase the number of vaccines across the state.

“I remain steadfast in our objective of vaccinating every Kansan, and we believe that Kansas’ plan will achieve this objective,” Kelly said. “Our team continues to monitor the effectiveness of vaccine rollout and that no vaccinations go to waste.”