Kansas senator believes political propaganda, fearmongering impairs COVID-19 response

Physician-politician dispenses ridicule, bluster with dash of essential oil

By: and - January 31, 2021 3:33 am
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, took aggressive positions on COVID-19 as a member of the Reno County Commission before assuming office in the Kansas Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, took aggressive positions on COVID-19 as a member of the Reno County Commission before assuming office in the Kansas Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Tonya Ferguson accepted an invitation from a newcomer on the Reno County Commission to outline at a public meeting in November how essential oils extracted from plants could come in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The appearance by a wellness advocate for products sold by the Utah company doTERRA International stood in contrast to the commission’s traditional public-comment insights on irritating property taxes, delinquent snow removal and teeth-rattling potholes. Invited to speak by then-county commissioner and now-Kansas Sen. Mark Steffen, Ferguson assured county officials at the meeting and viewers watching at home on Channel 7 that she was there to inspire folks to rely on safe, natural and pure essential oils to manage their needs — “a big missing piece of this puzzle.”

“I like to use an immune support, which is like putting my body in a bubble. It’s a powerful tool to combat viral and bacterial threats,” said Ferguson, drawing closer to her deTERRA punchline. “We offer protocols for the current threat we face. We have protocol for someone that’s staying at home during a home quarantine with a sick loved one. We have a responsive protocol for someone that wants to utilize symptom management tools and olfactory retraining — naturally — during the duration of the virus.”

Mark Steffen, a Republican state senator, invited to a Reno County Commission meeting a marketer of essential oils linked to a company urged by the Federal Trade Commission not to make exaggerated claims about treating COVID-19. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Mark Steffen, a Republican state senator, invited to a Reno County Commission meeting a marketer of essential oils linked to a company urged by the Federal Trade Commission to stop making exaggerated claims about treatment of COVID-19. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

She said the healing power of nature was an underappreciated utensil for “surviving and thriving during the current threat in our community.”

County Commissioner Ron Hirst grew impatient with what sounded to him like an infomercial. It’s not clear he was aware of the Federal Trade Commission’s warning in April 2020 to doTERRA’s attorneys advising the company to cease activities that “unlawfully advertise that certain products treat or prevent coronavirus.” The FTC has issued more than 300 notices to companies or individuals regarding quack remedies and dodgy science during the pandemic.

“Ma’am, if this is an advertisement, I think you need to do something else,” Hirst said.

“It’s not an advertisement,” interjected Steffen, an anesthesiologist from Hutchinson who had been on the commission for one week. “She’s doing perfectly fine, thank you.”

Ron Sellers, the commission’s chairman at the time, chimed in: “Let the chair address who is perfectly fine and who isn’t.”

“I’m not going to bow to your wishes,” Steffen informed the chairman. “Under any circumstance.”

“I noticed that,” Sellers replied.

State Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat and the Kansas House’s assistant minority leader, said the presentation orchestrated by Steffen was “terribly irresponsible” given gravity of a virus that has now infected 275,000, hospitalized 8,400 and killed 3,779 in Kansas. State officials say testing had identified 8,000 residents of Reno County with the virus and more than 100 of those people died.

“He believed during his tenure as a county commissioner that the other commissioners had no value,” Probst said. “Mark Steffen uses conspiratorial language of insurrectionists.”


‘Not proven science’

Steffen engaged in tense exchanges on COVID-19 at the handful of commission meetings he attended over a two-month period before departing to begin service in the state Senate. He had been appointed to an unexpired term on the commission by the county’s Republican Party. At one meeting, he complained that county employees and officials didn’t fully appreciate his medical expertise and insights into infectious disease.

“There are regimens out there,” Steffen said. “They’re not proven science, but they’re hope. And they can be done safely. It beats the heck out of the taxpayer-funded fear campaign.”

Gov. Laura Kelly, who has shared authority over the state's COVID-19 response with federal, state and county officials, receives her second vaccination for the coronavirus. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly, who shares authority over the COVID-19 response with federal, state and county officials, receives her second vaccination for the coronavirus. COVID-19 has been linked to the death of more than 3,700 Kansans since March. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

His combative style featured remarks apparently designed to intimidate, ridicule or threaten people who didn’t agree with his prescription for dealing with COVID-19. During commission meetings, his targets included county commissioners, Hutchinson physicians and Reno County health department workers. He denounced the local Chamber of Commerce and the hospital in Hutchinson. He blasted Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for allegedly bungling the state’s response to the coronavirus. He voiced frustration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the Capitol, after taking office in January, Steffen repeated disappointment about lack of widespread deployment during the pandemic of hydroxychloroquine. It’s a malaria drug that had its emergency use authorization for COVID-19 revoked in June by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health has attempted for months to sell $2 million worth of hydroxychloroquine once described by President Donald Trump as a “miracle” drug for COVID-19. U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas physician from Great Bend, said he took the drug in May as a coronavirus preventative measure while still a member of the U.S. House.

Steffen also said it was a mistake not to prescribe the parasite drug Ivermectin to decrease hospitalizations and fatalities from COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health’s COVID-19 treatment panel reported this month there was insufficient data to recommend or reject use of Ivermectin in relation to this coronavius calamity.

“As a physician who’s battled this thing from the start, I never felt like our leadership — the Kelly administration, the KDHE — has learned lessons from this virus and adapted its strategies,” Steffen said during a joint House and Senate hearing on COVID-19 attended by KDHE secretary Lee Norman. “We’ve been starved for early outpatient treatments. We’ve been starved, and they’ve been there and we’ve denied their use through the CDC, through the NIH, through our administration.”


‘Useful idiots’

Steffen claimed the Kelly administration manipulated COVID-19 testing to produce excessive false positives. He insisted there were political motivations for government lockdowns. Early projections of more than 2 million fatalities from the “China virus” were issued to provoke panic, he said. Steffen, a member of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said he was convinced the state’s educational and economic systems were cynically manipulated by politicians during the pandemic.

“This compilation of ruin and societal erosion, I believe, is the goal of the liberal left unwittingly perpetrated by ‘useful idiots’ at every level,” Steffen said. “We have to move forward without fear. We have to strive to protect those at high risk while enabling the rest of society to move forward. There has been pain and suffering and there will be more. But, sitting in the corner scared is not an option.”

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the state wouldn't plan to inoculate children for COVID-19 because the vaccines hadn't been approved for younger people. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the state wouldn’t plan to inoculate children for COVID-19 because the vaccines hadn’t been approved for younger people. He is a champion of vaccinating Kansas adults. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

During a briefing with the KDHE secretary, Steffen asked why the state agency intended to vaccinate children when there was no science to support doing so. Norman said the state wasn’t preparing to vaccinate children because available vaccines hadn’t been approved for that purpose.

After the hearing, Steffen said he also harbored concern about relying on COVID-19 vaccines created with messenger RNA, which some scientists believe could revolutionize the fight against infectious disease.

“Time will tell how safe and effective it really is,” Steffen said. “When you bring something new out onto the market, there’s always unintended consequences. Some of them may be good. More apt to be bad. But I think it’s a great vaccination for the right people.”

He didn’t wear a mask at county commission meetings in Hutchinson nor has he done so at the Capitol in Topeka. He posted to social media an image of himself wearing hospital garb and a mask dangling from his neck, but otherwise contends masks hadn’t been proven effective. In June, a statement by the American Society of Anesthesiologists urged people over the age of 2 to cover their nose and mouth with a cloth or disposable mask when in public.

“I’m frightened,” said Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas. “That kind of mindset — anti-science. He has the potential of influencing the health of our state.”


‘Fool’s gold’

Steffen was born in Oklahoma and graduated from Enid High School in 1981. He earned a chemistry and biology degree at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and a medical degree from the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine. He’s a board certified anesthesiologist who has practiced in Hutchinson, Great Bend, Pratt, Kingman and Emporia since 1997. In addition to his medical practice, he’s engaged as a farmer and rancher as well as an oil and gas producer.

He described himself in social media posts, a campaign website, election surveys and interviews as a conservative and true Kansas Republican. He said “less government creates more jobs” and that approach would culminate in lowering taxes. He’d like to see preferential tax reductions for depopulating counties in Kansas, because growth concentrated in the state’s urban centers was “fool’s gold.”

Sen. Mark Steffen , a Republican from Hutchinson, said (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Republican from Hutchinson, said politicians ought to make their beliefs unequivocally known because pandering to voters is a sickness on the quality of government representation in Kansas. He briefly served on the Reno County Commission. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In terms of a governing philosophy, he said politicians had to stand strong and make their beliefs unequivocally known. He said pandering to voters was a poison destroying Kansas. He said democracy was undermined by people who ran for office on platitudes and voted in a different manner once in office. In his mind, career politicians represented a destructive force in government.

He admired “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier and More Prosperous America,” by Arthur C. Brooks. He said the book published in 2015 taught him how to articulate conservative Christian beliefs. He said that as a state senator he would offer unwavering support for constitutional rights and object to any step toward government overreach and socialism.

In the August 2020 primary, Steffen defeated moderate GOP Sen. Ed Berger by 15 percentage points and prevailed in the general election against Democratic nominee Shanna Henry by a wider margin. His Senate district includes all of Reno County and northern Kingman County.

The October death of Reno County Commissioner Bob Bush created a vacancy on the commission. Instead of installing Daniel Friesen, who ran unopposed for Bush’s commission seat in the Nov. 3 election, the Republican Party in Reno County appointed Steffen to the District 3 post.

Between Nov. 9 and start of his four-year Senate term Jan. 11, Steffen served on the county commission. He said he would donate his county salary to charity. Friesen has assumed his role on the commission.


‘Bad governance’

During the commission’s Nov. 17 meeting in Hutchinson, which was among the first attended by Steffen, he quizzed Karen Hammersmith, the county’s interim health director, about the pandemic. Hammersmith said the local hospital was stretched by an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Steffen said it was puzzling fatalities attributed to COVID-19 climbed during a period in which masks were required. Hammersmith said some county residents weren’t adhering to public health recommendations on masking.

GOP Sen. Mark Steffen, while a member of the Reno County Commission in 2020, invited an essential oils marketer to speak to commissioners about how people might protect themselves in the era of COVID-19. (Screenshot/Kansas Reflector)
GOP Sen. Mark Steffen, while a member of the Reno County Commission, invited an essential oils marketer to speak to commissioners about how people might protect themselves in the era of COVID-19. One of his fellow commissioners objected to the advertising pitch. (Screenshot/Kansas Reflector)

“So, you’re saying it’s the people’s fault?” Steffen said.

Hammersmith said that was not her intent. Steffen raised with Hammersmith the challenge of convincing more people about efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. She said it was not her role to evaluate potential medical treatments in the pandemic because she was a registered nurse and not a physician.

Steffen said the Republican Party turned to him to fill the county commission vacancy so he could apply his knowledge as a doctor and businessman in formulation of a more reasonable county coronavirus strategy. He said people who had orchestrated the county’s COVID-19 response had a far too narrow perspective.

“We have a registered nurse creating mandates,” Steffen said.

At the commission’s Dec. 15 meeting, Steffen questioned Hammersmith about the Reno County health order outlining mask and social distancing objectives. She said the order was drawn from guidance offered by KDHE and the CDC.

He said an “incredible” number of his constituents thought the county health order was a mistake. It was tethered to the Kelly administration’s $1.5 million informational campaign on COVID-19, he said, that was designed to undermine free will.

“The reality is there is no evidence this health order moved the needle,” Steffen said. “We don’t need a health order. That’s bad governance.”


‘You’ll answer for that’

Before opening a county commission meeting to public comment, the chairman said the intent of the open microphone portion of the agenda was to hear from county residents and not set the stage for commission members to launch into policy debates.

“Where’s that come from?” Steffen said. “I want to see that in writing. Doesn’t sound like a rule or law. If I’m inclined to ask a question, I’m going to ask a question.”

Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said there was reason to fear the anti-science rhetoric on COVID-19 by Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, expressed fear with anti-science rhetoric on COVID-19 from Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican who objects to handling of the pandemic by Gov. Laura Kelly, Kansas Department of Health and Environment as well as officials in Reno County. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

He challenged Sellers to stop him.

“Let’s see you do that Commissioner Sellers. Let’s see it,” Steffen said.

At the Dec. 22 meeting of the county commission, Steffen tangled again with Hammersmith and criticized Hutchinson Clinic physician Scott Pauly. Steffen dismissed contents of a letter from Hutchinson pulmonologist Robert Sourk, who urged continuation of a mask order in the county. Steffen used the opportunity to allege existence of a COVID-19 disinformation conspiracy involving Hutchinson Regional Medical Center and the Hutchinson Chamber of Commerce.

“You all can wish until the cows come home for those masks to make a big difference in society, but they just don’t,” Steffen said. “I’m against this fear campaign that’s being run by the Kelly administration, by you (Hammersmith) and the health department through the hospital and through the chamber.”

Pauly said relaxation of COVID-19 testing, tracing and masking would contribute to a new wave of infection. A surge in Reno County will needlessly damage operation of schools and businesses, he said.

“Will you please quit talking and pretending to know what you’re talking about,” Steffen told Pauly. “Your talk is propaganda. This is total garbage. It’s a disservice to the community. You’ll answer for that. You’re not going to walk away from that.”


‘That’s garbage’

Hirst and Sellers voted at a commission meeting in December to stick with face covering recommendations endorsed by the governor. Steffen was the lone dissenter. He didn’t conceal dismay that his fellow commissioners were again fumbling the ball.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said fellow Reno County legislator Mark Steffen improperly invited an essential oils advocate to a county commission meeting to talk about use of essential oils in the pandemic. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
Rep. Jason Probst, Hutchinson Democrat, said GOP Sen. Mark Steffen was wrong to invite an essential oils advocate to a Reno County Commission meeting last year to promote use of plant extracts to help people in the COVID-19 pandemic. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

“At this time,” Hirst said, “I fully believe that even if there’s only 5 to 10% chance that my mask will keep someone else who has an underlying condition or a friend of mine — if I am contagious — from getting COVID, I have to believe that I’m doing the right thing.”

“You’re falling prey to propaganda,” Steffen said.

“I don’t think so,” Hirst shot back.

“It’s just as likely you’re catching virus and giving it to people,” Steffen said. “Time is going to prove that. I hope you’re around to get to see that and hear that. I have insight into this stuff. Don’t sleep well at night thinking you wearing a mask is protecting others. That’s garbage.”

Steffen said the nation must rely on readily available medicines and hope for success of vaccines taken by people willing to be inoculated.

“Above all,” he said, “let’s build our individual relationship with God, our true salvation from difficulties. My Christian mandate on this and every issue is to seek the truth and speak the truth, irrespective of its popularity. That mandate I will follow.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.