Republicans question Kansas health secretary over rollout of COVID-19 vaccines

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, says Tuesday she understands hiccups with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines but that there shouldn't be any hiccups in communication about it. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican lawmakers seized the opportunity Tuesday to direct frustrations at Kansas health secretary Lee Norman over his agency’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and failures to clarify when and where Kansans can go to get inoculated.

In a joint hearing before Senate and House health panels, Norman defended the decision to include prisoners in the upcoming second wave of Kansans earmarked to get the vaccine, and he warned of the possibility of a vaccine shortage.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman testifies Tuesday before a joint panel of House and Senate lawmakers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

So far, Norman said, the agency has received about 200,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and administered at least 125,000 doses. The actual number of shots given could be higher because some hospital staff members still need to be trained on the system used for recording vaccine data.

The state is nearing the end of the first phase of vaccine distribution, which targets health care workers and nursing home residents.

Republicans questioned Norman, who appeared by video, for the first time this session after he canceled a series of planned meetings last week with individual committees because of the need to focus on the vaccine rollout.

“Is there going to be hiccups? We get that,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita. “But lack of communication should never be a hiccup in this process.”

Most of the committee members, including all the Democrats, chose to watch the hearing remotely. Ten Republicans, half of them wearing masks, attended in person.

They expressed concerns about constituents and family members who have struggled to find out when they should get the vaccine, or where to go to get it. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment distributed the vaccines to county health departments and gave them local control of the process, including the authority to skip ahead in the groups who get the vaccine.

Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, said Kansans are getting transferred back and forth between local health providers and the county health departments and they try to figure out where to get a shot.

“They’re running this tag back and forth and nobody seems to know what’s going on,” Blex said.

KDHE’s five-phase plan covers about 6% of the state population in the first phase, which is nearly complete. The second phase will cover 35% of the state’s population, including anyone ages 65 and older, prisons and other congregate settings, and high-contact critical workers.

“Why would someone that has been convicted of child molestation and serving time — they’re 25 years of age, perfect health — why are they ahead of someone that might be 64, recovering from cancer or a heart attack?” said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena.

Norman said the decision to include prisoners in the second phase is based on recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is consistent with decisions made in other states. People who live in congregate settings are especially vulnerable, he said, because they can’t escape the virus. Other examples of congregate settings are homeless shelters, child care institutions, shelters for victims of domestic violence, behavioral health facilities, and adult care homes.

By giving the vaccine to prisoners, Norman said, they are protecting communities around the state correctional facilities. In addition to civilians regularly entering the prisons, the inmates continue to participate in work-release programs at the request of employers who want their cheap labor.

“There’s a terrific amount of movement into and out of (prisons),” Norman said. “So it’s felt that, to eradicate the disease in the community, you have to get it in every congregate setting, including prisons.”

Norman said Kansas with its population of 3 million is supposed to get 1% of the nation’s vaccine supply, but the state sometimes is shorted by as much as half of the promised allotment. He said the supply is unlikely to improve much with the change in presidential administrations.

A supply shortage in COVID-19 vaccines is “something we have to live with,” Norman said, which will be a challenge for completing the second phase of the rollout.

“Will there be any more vaccine? I don’t know,” Norman said. “Does it make sense to bring on board 100 entities to serve as vaccinating sites if we don’t have any vaccine to give them? That’s not very gratifying. The thing to watch is the vaccine supply.”