Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who also served in the Obama administration’s Cabinet, is subject of a new Washburn University and KTWU documentary, “Red State/blue Governor: Kansas’ Kathleen Sebelius.” (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
TOPEKA — Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius generated political blowback by comparing people rejecting COVID-19 vaccinations to individuals who brazenly threatened the health of others by driving while intoxicated or by fouling air in public spaces with cigarette smoke.
Sebelius, who also was President Barack Obama’s health secretary, said on CNN the U.S. surge of hospitalizations and fatalities linked to the Delta variant’s aggressive attack on the unvaccinated should prompt limitations on where vaccine rejectionists could go in public. It’s not fair, she said, for the unvaccinated to carelessly endanger others.
“You can drink, but you can’t drive drunk because you can injure other people. You can’t smoke inside of a public place where you can give cancer to someone else in spite of their never having been a smoker,” Sebelius said. “Right now, I’m being impinged on by people who say, ‘I don’t want to get vaccinated.’ It’s fine. I want them to maybe have a limitation on where they can go and who they can possibly infect.”
Jeff Colyer, a former Republican governor seeking the 2022 GOP’s nomination for the job, said on Tuesday he was unimpressed with Sebelius’ interpretation of freedom. He equated her words to “lunacy” and suggested her “crazy socialist idea” was the type of leadership exhibited by the Soviet union.
It would be wrong to engage in coercive tactics to force people to get vaccinated or to bring about issuance of vaccine passports to keep the unvaccinated away from workplaces or children, Colyer said.
“As a governor and doctor,” Colyer said, “I know this approach won’t work and will only strip away the freedoms provided to us as Americans. If you are vaccinated, lose the mask. If you aren’t vaccinated, do your research and make the decision that is best for you and your family.”
Colyer, who served as lieutenant governor for seven years to Gov. Sam Brownback, said Sebelius was widely regarded as the mentor to Gov. Laura Kelly.
“Kansans have a right to know if Laura Kelly endorses her patron’s coercive approach,” Colyer said.
Kelly has consistently opposed requiring the issuance of vaccine passports in Kansas. She said the focus was on broadening the voluntary vaccination campaign across the state to deter the Delta variant.
“We are really focused on figuring out ways to get past the barriers to vaccinations in a host of places, but particularly in some of our southeast Kansas counties. That’s our focus right now — not mandates,” Kelly said.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the state was encouraging testing and vaccinations to combat spread of COVID-19 and was making use of media campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and collaboration with community leaders to raise awareness in every Kansas county.
Tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 51.2% of Kansans ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and 59.9% have received at least one dose.
So far during the pandemic, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has reported 325,728 cases of COVID-19, 5,218 deaths and 11,445 hospitalizations. During 2021, KDHE has identified 97,983 cases, 2,339 deaths and 4,542 hospitalizations.
Those numbers include 20 more deaths and 81 hospitalizations since Monday.
The rapid spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is far more contagious than the original virus, combined with low vaccination rates has produced more deaths this July than the same month last year. In 2020, 37 Kansans died from the virus between July 1 and July 21, compared to 52 recorded in 2021, according to CDC data.
In the CNN interview that aired July 13, Sebelius said “wildly effective” COVID-19 vaccines were readily available for free in the United States, but some folks simply didn’t want anything to do with getting the shots for the broader community good.
“I think that it’s time to say to those folks, ‘It’s fine if you don’t choose to get vaccinated. You may not come to work. You may not have access to a situation where you’re going to put my grandchildren in jeopardy, where you might kill them, or you might put them in a situation where they’re going to carry the virus to someone in a high-risk position,’ ” the former Democratic governor said.
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