Opinion

Kansas mandate panel heard anti-vax propaganda, but did members get their shots? I decided to ask.

November 22, 2021 3:33 am

Rep. Brenda Landwehr (left) speaks with Senate President Ty Masterson earlier this month. Landwehr has been vaccinated against COVID-19; Masterson didn’t answer the question. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, legislator image by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector, vaccines by Getty Images)

Opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates doesn’t mean you’re opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s been the talking point from conservative leaders. Former president Trump even said you wouldn’t need mandates if he was president because of his sales skills.

With the Kansas Legislature’s special anti-mandate session beginning today, I thought I’d put that talking point to the test. I reached out to the 11 members of the 2021 Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates, which paved the way for the session, to ask two questions.

Here they are, verbatim:

  • Have you been vaccinated against COVID-19?
  • Would you encourage your fellow Kansans to get vaccinated?

This, I figured, was where the rubber met the road. What would officials tell me on the brink of a session sure to bring more than its share of conspiracy theories? What would members of a panel that listened to days’ worth of patently ridiculous testimony say?

The quantity and quality of results surprised me. I heard back from six of the 11 committee members. Of those six, five said they were vaccinated. While I can’t run the entirety of their responses for simple space reasons, I will do my best to represent everyone’s answers in the paragraphs that follow.

 

What they said

Vice chairwoman Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, sent a lengthy email that described the hesitations that some Kansans still feel about the vaccine, as well as evolving scientific knowledge.

“I met with my doctor and, together, we decided it was ok for me to get the ‘vaccine’ after reviewing my health history,” she wrote. “Based on age and health, the risk seemed appropriate for me. It is not my place to tell someone if they should or should not get the ‘vaccine.’ ”

Later on, she wrote: “Most people I know have either been vaccinated or have had the disease and now have natural immunity. There is a reason the state of Kansas did not mandate the vaccine, and I believe it is a decision that should be made on a local level just as the governor said herself. The federal government does not have the authority to make a lot of decisions for states, and I firmly believe they should not make this decision for Kansas from Washington, D.C.”

Sen. Pat Petty, D-Kansas City, was the first to answer my questions. She wrote: “I have been vaccinated and I have my booster as well. I do encourage everyone I know to get the vaccination. I truly believe we have a tool that is safe, approved and free and it allows us to carry out our daily routines and know that we are not potentially passing on COVID to others and in turn we have the protection to stay healthy.”

Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, was the second to write back. He’s also vaccinated, he said, making the decision after meeting with his doctor. He believes that no Kansan should have to choose between vaccination and providing for their family.

I felt it was important for me to be present in the Legislature with little chance of missing,” he wrote, pointing out the number of times Republicans overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

“Because I am not a doctor it is not my place to advise anyone to get vaccinated, or not to get vaccinated,” he added. “I would advise my friends to meet with their healthcare professionals and weigh their opinions along with the actual risks of the disease. Most of the people that I know have either been vaccinated, or have had the disease and now have natural immunity.”

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, and Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, had pithier responses to my question, which I’m therefore able to quote in full.

“I have been vaccinated including my booster,” Miller wrote. “I would strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated and if hesitant to do so, consult with your physician.”

“Yes, yes,” wrote Carmichael.

Which brings us to Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee. I included Thompson in my Kansas GOP “disinformation caucus” back in August. That said, his answers to my questions were notably subdued.

Thompson wouldn’t say whether he had been vaccinated against COVID-19: “That is personal.”

He added: “I would encourage Kansans to do their own research on the vaccines before they decide whether or not it is in their best interest to take the vaccine.”

 

What they didn’t

We should note the five people who didn’t respond. They include the chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Renee Erickson, and Senate President Ty Masterson. Both are Republicans from Wichita. I also did not hear from Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, who is running for the GOP nomination for attorney general. On the House side, Republican Reps. John Barker, of Abilene, and Stephen Owens, of Hesston, also didn’t answer the two questions.

I understand the week before the special session was a busy one. It’s possible that not all of the five folks mentioned got around to writing their responses. But one can’t help but notice that the two highest-profile members of the committee — Erickson and Masterson — didn’t answer my questions. Why are they reluctant to speak up for vaccines? We know the shots work and have saved the lives and health of Kansans.

It’s unfortunate that of the five who didn’t answer my questions, all were Republicans. Uptake of the vaccine, and willingness to share its benefits with others, shouldn’t be partisan.

We can argue about mandates. Legislators will do plenty of that Monday and in days to come.

I happen to believe that everyone should be vaccinated for the sake of their fellow humans, and to bring this wretched pandemic to an end. In a perfect world, COVID-19 mandates wouldn’t be necessary because we all care so much about others. Given that we don’t, perhaps such mandates have a place. We enforce a number of inconvenient public safety laws — seatbelts, speed limits, driver’s licenses — for the greater good. If you break them, you can face life-altering consequences.

But we shouldn’t argue about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. I appreciate the mandate committee lawmakers who shared their experiences and advice with me and Kansas Reflector readers.

Let’s try to make it through this special session with a minimum of conspiratorial outrage.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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