COVID-19 vaccination program for state legislators: Savvy maneuver or line-jumping?

Members, staff of Kansas Legislature eligible for shots in early February

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said he planned to forgo the opportunity for an early COVID-19 vaccination offered to all members of the Kansas Legislature and statehouse staff by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said he planned to forgo the opportunity for an early COVID-19 vaccination offered to all members of the Kansas Legislature and statehouse staff by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. J.R. Claeys appreciates urgency of a plan to offer COVID-19 vaccine to the Kansas Legislature’s members and staff, but won’t likely take advantage of the expedited distribution program.

“I don’t anticipate cutting in line. I don’t think it’s that long I will have to wait anyway,” said Claeys, a 42-year-old Salina lawmaker willing to await the phased delivery of vaccine. “I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone who did, especially those in high-risk categories.”

Under an initiative authorized by Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the 165 state legislators and the array of statehouse staff will be eligible for vaccination against the coronavirus. A clinic at the Nickell Armory Gym in Topeka will be used Feb. 2-4 to handle appointments for most individuals working daily at the Capitol.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said conversations with statehouse employees fearful of catching COVID-19 while at the Capitol convinced him to be part of the vaccination program. He said several staff members had indicated they were wary of legislators who refused to wear masks or social distance while conducting legislative activities.

Sen. Kristen O'Shea, a Topeka Republican, responded to an offer for all Kansas legislators to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in early February by asked why lawmakers were being moved to the front of the line. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, responded to an offer for all Kansas legislators to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in early February by asked why lawmakers were being moved to the front of the line. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“I had conversations with staff members in this building who are terribly concerned,” said Probst, the assistant minority leader in the House. “More concerned that I’ve ever seen them about anything before. We have in this building some people who are obstinate and refuse to wear a mask or take any safety precautions. It’s completely unfair to staff in this building who are just trying to do their jobs, just trying to make a living, and get through this year healthy.”

Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, informed his GOP colleagues last week about the vaccination option. The information was met with a question from freshman Sen. Kristen O’Shea.

“Why are we at the front of the line?” the Topeka Republican said.

KDHE reported Monday that 157,000 doses of vaccine had been administered in Kansas, a figure that represented 4.5% of the state’s population.

Of total shots delivered so far in Kansas, there were 132,000 initial doses and 25,000 boosters. About one-fourth of the 132,000 have been people 65 years of age and older. The 25-to-64 age group has received approximately 90,000 doses as the state pushed vaccine to health care workers and employees and residents of nursing homes.

The governor said the state had moved to phase two of the vaccination protocol, which included other essential front-line personnel, teachers, daycare employees, prison guards and grocery workers. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions or those 65 years of age or older now qualify in Kansas for the vaccine.

“Local health officials have authority to prioritize … within each phase,” Kelly said. “They know their communities best and they know best how to distribute the vaccines among their residents.”

Kelly said it was her goal to vaccinate all Kansans by the end of 2021. An inhibiting factor at the moment, she said, was a shortage of vaccine on a national level. The federal government has vowed to ramp up production of vaccine.

Meanwhile, testing in Kansas has identified 269,000 cases of COVID-19 statewide since March. The pandemic has hospitalized 8,100 and killed 3,600 in Kansas, KDHE said.

Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are working on a program to provide COVID-19 vaccinations in early February to members and staff of the Kansas Legislature. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are working on a program to provide COVID-19 vaccinations in early February to members and staff of the Kansas Legislature. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, the Lenexa Democrat, said she would accept the offer of a vaccination because it would help send a message that Kansans could trust the preventative measure.

She also said inoculation was a good idea because lawmakers engaged in legislative affairs during the week and risked exposing family members when returning home during evenings or on weekends.

That idea of protecting family members resonated with Republican Sen. Jeff Longbine, who had COVID-19 in August. He also worries about unrestrained spread of the virus disrupting the 2021 legislative session before important bills could be resolved in the House and Senate.

“In my book,” Longbine said, “there is work that has to be done here. We’ve got to pass a budget. If we can protect the process that’s probably not bad.”

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran said during a visit to a mass vaccination facility at the University of Kansas Health System complex in Kansas City, Kansas, that he witnessed people gravitating to the opportunity to gain an edge against the coronavirus. He said one woman expressed appreciation for the chance to once again hold grandchildren. Others were convinced it was a life-saving step.

“You can see and hear the joy — the chance they have to get a vaccine and what it means in their lives,” Moran said. “If you need a reason to get vaccinated, think about the people who come to work every day at the hospital or the clinic that are trying to save lives.”

On Monday, the governor signed Senate Bill 14 to extend the state of disaster emergency declaration to March 31. The bill crafted by the GOP-led House and Senate allows continuation of resources, support and regulations tied to the COVID-19 response.

“Extending the current disaster declaration is essential for our state’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts, allowing us to keep Kansans safe and healthy, keep our economy open, and get our kids back in school as quickly as possible,” Kelly said.