Opinion

Do Kansas legislators understand that we’re all in the middle of a pandemic?

January 18, 2022 3:33 am

The Kansas Legislature has gathered for its 2022 session, but precautions to prevent spread of COVID-19 appear few and far between. (Clay Wirestone illustration/Kansas Reflector, dome image Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector, symbol Wikimedia Commons)

Does the Kansas Legislature know there’s a pandemic going on?

Do Kansas senators and representatives understand that we’re all enduring a once-in-a-century event, one in which millions of people are falling ill and being hospitalized, with thousands dying each day?

I ask because last week’s session launch demonstrated that state legislators aren’t just pursuing policies that will weaken Kansans’ health. They’re setting themselves up to be vectors of disease, if not patients themselves. There is no mask mandate at the Statehouse, and while Republicans might be expected to go without face coverings in this politicized environment, some Democrats also have decided to toss caution to the wind.

Legislators aren’t screened when entering the building, aren’t required to be vaccinated, and there’s no testing requirement if someone feels ill while present. For that matter, no one tracks outbreaks or infections in the building.

“I hope and pray that all the people in that Capitol, the visitors and people testifying, I hope that everybody is OK,” said Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a Fredonia family physician who volunteered at the Statehouse last week. “But I foresee in the next two weeks that we’re just going to see the result of these first few days.”

Bacani McKenney was speaking with Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith about the first two days of the new session, during which she saw people with COVID-19-like symptoms in the building. (Thankfully, on-site testing is available.) We can hope they didn’t expose anyone else, but what are the odds of that?

Imagine the psychotic mass delusion necessary for legislators to descend upon Topeka en masse and decide that basic public health measures don’t apply to them.

Hospitals across the state are bursting at the seams with COVID patients. Doctors are figuring out their morgue capacity for the unrelenting stream of the dead. The omicron variant has spiraled out of control across the state and nation. Medical professionals are begging Kansans to wear masks, avoid crowds, test themselves if symptomatic, and get vaccinated and boosted.

– Clay Wirestone

When the full Kansas Senate posed for a photo last week, few masks were in evidence. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Hospitals across the state are bursting at the seams with COVID patients. Doctors are figuring out their morgue capacity for the unrelenting stream of the dead. The omicron variant has spiraled out of control across the state and nation. Medical professionals are begging Kansans to wear masks, avoid crowds, test themselves if symptomatic, and get vaccinated and boosted.

Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears at the Capitol building. Committees meet. Hearings continue. Friends embrace and breathe into one another’s faces.

“You definitely wouldn’t have known that we were in a surge, that outside the world of the Capitol there was a crisis going on in our health care system,” Bacani McKenney said.

I want to acknowledge that we’re not where we were in March of 2020.

Vaccines have changed the game. If you’re vaccinated you have reduced your risk of infection and hospitalization, and practically eliminated your risk of death from the virus. We have more accessible testing and a better knowledge of the virus. But omicron has proved itself far more transmissible than earlier variants, meaning that breakthrough cases among the vaccinated and previously infected have become relatively common.

On an individual level this doesn’t matter much. Most of us can handle a few days of cold-like symptoms. Yet many Kansans still haven’t been vaccinated, and breakthrough infections still can challenge those who are immunocompromised, have serious pre-existing conditions or are older. All of this makes the Kansas Statehouse — and the hundreds clustering inside — a ripe target for COVID-19 outbreaks.

Everyone knows this. House Speaker Ron Ryckman was hospitalized with COVID-19 in the summer of 2020. Senate President Ty Masterson also recovered from an infection. Both must recognize the potential for infection and the importance of staying healthy.

I’m not calling on conservative legislators to “follow the science,” whatever that phrase means now (progressives have a habit of taking useful sayings and making them insufferably annoying through repetition). I just want them to show respect toward their fellow human beings. I just want them to think about someone other than themselves.

Remember these uncomfortable truths:

You can’t tell whether people are vaccinated or unvaccinated by looking at them.

You can’t tell whether people are immunocompromised or not by looking at them.

You can’t tell whether people live with unvaccinated or immunocompromised folks by looking at them.

But if you pass on a potentially deadly virus to these people while refusing to take the simplest precautions during a pandemic? That’s on your conscience.

So, Statehouse denizens: Wear a mask. Keep your distance when possible. Get tested. Make sure your vaccinations are up to date. No one will show up to change your voter registration if you do so. Instead, you’re setting an example of compassion and care for those working around you. Be a decent person during a difficult time.

Clarification: This column has been updated to reflect that COVID-19 testing is available at the Kansas Statehouse.

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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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