Kansas lawmakers test positive for COVID-19, worry about lax safety at Statehouse

By: - January 19, 2022 3:31 pm

A sign directing visitors to wear a mask before entering the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians clinic on the fourth floor of the Statehouse has been ripped from the door. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Democrats in the Kansas House are worried about lax health safety protocols, relocated COVID-19 testing, and the confirmed and rumored infections of legislators and staff.

Few lawmakers regularly wear a mask at the Statehouse, despite record-setting numbers of hospitalizations and escalating death totals from COVID-19.

The Kansas Department for Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 128 more deaths from COVID-19, along with 151 hospitalizations and 39,326 cases since Friday.

“Leadership doesn’t seem to care,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “They have thrown in the towel on preventing the spread of this disease in the Kansas Legislature, and I fear that within days we’ll have a hard time finding a quorum around this place.”

Alexis Simmons, a spokeswoman for House Democrats, confirmed that three members of the caucus have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the session. They declined to be identified. Two more, Rep. Heather Meyer, D-Overland Park, and Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, said they tested positive shortly before the start of the session.

Woodard and Meyer both said they are fully vaccinated and boosted. Meyer stayed away from the Statehouse during the first week of the session.

“I hear my constituents say they are tired, and my former colleagues in health care talk about how concerned they are about this surge,” Meyer said. “At this point, we are all exhausted and overwhelmed by the pandemic, which is why it’s important for everyone to step up their game, and continue to do all that we can to help stop the spread because we won’t beat this virus if we don’t work together.”

Woodard said he tested positive before New Year’s Eve and was asymptomatic. He expressed frustration about the lack of concern for COVID-19 he has seen so far this session.

On Tuesday, Woodard said, he asked a Republican lawmaker if they had COIVD-19. The response: COVID’s not real.

“It’s so frustrating because folks from our caucus are wearing masks and taking precautions, while science-deniers walk around the building,” Woodard said.

Gov. Laura Kelly poses for a photo with members of her education advisory group on Friday in front of the Brown v. Board mural at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Lawmakers from both parties can be seen without a mask in hallways and any given committee hearing. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly left the State of the State speech without a mask last week and posed for maskless pictures with a group of education advisers on Friday.

Even the acting health secretary, Janet Stanek, didn’t wear a mask when she appeared before Senate and House panels this week.

Carmichael said Stanek must have learned from the fate of former health secretary Lee Norman, who was fired for speaking beyond politically calculated talking points provided by the governor’s office.

“The governor started out doing the right things,” Carmichael said. “She met with political opposition. She had to compromise. But what she’s doing now is setting a poor example.”

Few legislators have been forthcoming about their illnesses, and medical privacy issues make it difficult to verify the many rumors of infected lawmakers. Several committees abruptly canceled hearings on Wednesday, with staff and lawmakers absent from the Statehouse.

Eric Turek, spokesman for House Republicans, wouldn’t say how many members have tested positive.

“We’re not going to disclose personal health information of any of our members,” Turek said.

A spokeswoman for Senate Democrats said there were no known cases of COVID-19 among caucus members. A spokesman for Senate Republicans didn’t respond to an inquiry for this story.

Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services, said testing at the Statehouse is available for legislators and staff. Between 12-15 people are being tested per day, he said, and two have tested positive in the past five work days. A courier picks up the samples at 10 a.m. and delivers them to a lab at Wichita State University.

Last year, testing was conducted near the entry of the building on the ground floor, in a room typically used by lobbyists for luncheons. This year, testing was moved to the fifth floor, Day said, “because we had no other place to do it.”

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, says leadership doesn’t seem to care about preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the Statehouse this year. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Carmichael said he was troubled by the decision to move testing to a location where someone who is sick would have to pass through Capitol, ride in an enclosed elevator and enter an office where several people work.

“How many people are legislators and their staff going to pass the virus to just going to get their test?” Carmichael asked.

People are obviously tired of the necessary precautions to preserve the public health, Carmichael said. He understands that people are frustrated that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“But that doesn’t mean that the risk is less,” Carmichael said. “People who think that just because omicron is apparently less virulent or is less severe in its symptoms are running a tremendous risk. Because if they end up being the person who does have a deadly case of omicron, they will be just as dead as someone who died of delta or some other variant.

“And so our fatigue has taken over and overruled our common sense. And I have to admit that I slip up myself too. You know, it’s been a long time, and we all want this to be over with, but just hoping and wishing and saying it’s been long enough doesn’t stop the virus.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.