Senate votes to block measure stifling KDHE’s role in expanding child vaccinations

Amendment inspired by concern of possible COVID-19 inoculation order

Hutchinson Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, lower left, awaits a decision of the Senate rules committee on a procedural challenge to his amendment stripping KDHE of power to add to a required list of child vaccinations. Steffen won the challenge, but his amendment was rejected. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Hutchinson Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, lower left, awaits a decision of the Senate rules committee on a procedural challenge to his amendment stripping KDHE of power to add to a required list of child vaccinations. Steffen won the challenge, but his amendment was rejected. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate rejected an amendment Wednesday that would strip the state’s top public health official from expanding the list of required vaccinations for children enrolled in schools or attending child-care facilities.

The measure offered by Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, would have reduced authority of the secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment to issuing recommendations about child inoculations in response to emerging disease and evolution of science.

It would have represented a dramatic shift in the state’s approach to battling illness by moving decisions away from state health agency appointees and to the state’s elected legislators. KDHE hasn’t issued an order requiring children or adults to be given the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Kansas, questioned wisdom of a Senate amendment forbidding KDHE from expanding a list of required child vaccinations, including a possible COVID-19 shot. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Kansas, questioned wisdom of a Senate amendment forbidding KDHE from expanding a list of required child vaccinations, including a possible COVID-19 shot. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Steffen said he was motivated by evidence the COVID-19 vaccine carried risk of injury or death and that families should have the liberty to decide whether their children received the shots.

“Think of it as playing Russian roulette. When you’re taking that vaccine, you’re pulling the trigger,” said Steffen, who has a medical degree. “This amendment does not change current vaccination requirements in any way. It just blocks further forced vaccinations. I’m not an anti-vaccination guy. I’m a pro-individual-choice guy.”

The Senate voted 17-18, with both Democrats and Republicans opposed, to defeat Steffen’s amendment on the KDHE’s responsibilities with child vaccinations.

In Kansas, regulations require students at various ages to receive vaccines for meningitis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chicken pox.

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said shifting decisions about vaccinations away from KDHE appeared designed to politicize a pandemic requiring a medical response. The state’s roster of required vaccinations was adopted in the 1970s and had been modified three times, she said.

“I don’t want to see an outbreak of measles or mumps or meningitis,” she said. “This amendment puts it into the partisan field of legislation, which I do not think is best for Kansas. When we have those experts that deal with our children across the state saying the same thing, I think we should be listening to them.”

Steffen said the organizations and associations opposed to his amendment didn’t have to deal with ramifications of health problems experienced by a small percentage of children with adverse reactions to vaccinations.

“They don’t take those vaccine-injured children home,” the senator said. “They don’t have any responsibility for the problems the vaccines cause. They are very rare, don’t get me wrong, but they’re very real. Those passionate people who want everybody force-vaccinated, they draw their paycheck and they go home and they live their happy life. They parents of the vaccine-injured kid or the dead kid, they don’t get to do that. That’s where the real line has been drawn here.”

Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, challenged Steffen’s statement that his amendment reinstated constitutional rights and liberties of parents to prohibit their children from being vaccinated. Corson said no courts had found vaccine mandates to be unconstitutional.

In addition, Corson said, no other state had stripped health officials of authority to make decisions about emerging vaccines and placed that power with state legislators.

“I’m a little reluctant for Kansas to be the only state to have this requirement,” Corson said. “Kansas would, if this was adopted, be the only state in the entire country that would have a legislative process instead of a medical, scientific, nonpartisan process for determining immunization requirements.”

The underlying legislation, House Bill 2224, would benefit law enforcement agencies interested in testing individuals taken into custody who may have an infectious disease and potentially spread it to officers. The bill was advanced by the Senate to final action.

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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.