Kansas senator vents wrath at state health officials: ‘Recognize your inadequacy’

Bill would remove infectious disease authority from county health officers

By: - February 13, 2023 2:18 pm
Sen. Mark Steffen

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, complains about the response by health officials to the COVID-19 pandemic during a Feb. 13, 2023, hearing. Steffen proposed legislation to take away the power of health officials to prevent the spread of infectious disease. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. Mark Steffen on Monday described Kansas health officials as inadequate during the COVID-19 pandemic and accused them of intentionally pursuing ineffective ways to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, delivered a fiery speech at the end of a hearing on Senate Bill 6, legislation he introduced to strip state and county health officers of their authority to fight infectious disease. He addressed his comments to opponents of the bill, including the state’s deputy health secretary, a lobbyist for local health departments and a pediatrician.

“Let’s talk about credibility,” Steffen said. “Y’all talk about this need to be able to prevent the spread of disease. You didn’t do it. You can’t do it. Help me understand what part of this COVID response that your mandates, your quarantines, that any of it made a difference. You can’t show. You knew beforehand that it wouldn’t work. You made it up as you went. You had no science. You have no science now. If I’m incorrect, please stand up and show me your scientific studies that can prove to me that anything you did worked.”

Steffen, an anesthesiologist who was investigated for prescribing a discredited treatment of livestock de-wormer to COVID-19 patients, continued his speech without giving anyone a chance to stand up.

“Your hubris is astounding today,” Steffen said. “To stand up here and pretend that you all did anything that was effective during that COVID response is ludicrous. But bring the studies if you’ve got them. If you don’t, recognize your inadequacy in the field of public health. Recognize it. Admit it. Regain our trust. Now, you don’t have it, and you certainly didn’t gain it today.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and state health officials ordered social distancing, quarantines and the wearing of face masks during the early months of the pandemic. The governor also closed schools for the final two months of the school year and ordered a statewide lockdown in April 2020, at a time when little was known about the virus and personal protective equipment was scarce. Free, safe and effective vaccines became widely available a year later.

Melissa Campbell
Melissa Campbell told lawmakers she refuses to co-parent with the government. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In response to questions for this story, former health secretary Lee Norman, who oversaw the state’s response to the pandemic, pointed to studies on ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, how lockdowns saved lives and the effectiveness of vaccines.

“As a state, our medical, nursing and other health care professionals really rose to the occasion and did remarkably well, considering there was no vaccine or therapeutics,” Norman said. “The public health measures were and are critically important and successful.”

State law that is more than a century old gives the state health secretary, an appointed position, and county health officers broad authority to impose restrictions in the interest of public health. Steffen’s law would unravel that authority.

Under his proposal, health officials would merely issue recommendations. School teachers and administrators would no longer be considered mandatory reporters for infectious disease. Law enforcement officials would no longer have to enforce health orders.

The proposal was championed by a dozen individuals, including those who deny the safety or efficacy of masks and vaccines. They cheered Steffen’s closing remarks.

None of the supporters were licensed doctors trained in infectious disease.

“Why did Kansas officials ignore high quality experienced medical advice and continue to enforce these ineffective policies that control the Kansas populace and make Kansas children suffer horribly? This is uncaring tyranny,” said Festus Krebs III, whose license to practice medicine in Kansas expired in 1990, according to the Board of Healing Arts online database.

Nicole Vannicola
Nicole Vannicola, a Republican precinct committeewoman from Eudora, testifies Feb. 13, 2023, before the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. She said a doctor proposed having her child strip in a car in a parking lot because the boy wouldn’t wear a mask inside. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Nicole Vannicola, a Republican precinct committeewoman from Eudora, said her 10-year-old son was unable to wear a mask during the pandemic because he struggled to breathe. As a result, she said, the doctor refused to see him for a medical condition that needed attention.

The doctor proposed a workaround, she said, in which he would attend to the child in her care in the parking lot, where nurses could hold up a sheet while the boy undressed.

“That was the best that he could come up with for not doing any harm, for the oath that he’s taken,” Vannicola said. “These are the things that happen to the people when we are made to follow these guidelines instead of giving us the option.”

Melissa Campbell told lawmakers she has been entrusted by God to make decisions about her children and their livelihoods.

“I do not co-parent with the government,” Campbell said.

Campbell also submitted written testimony in which she falsely claimed that “thousands of people die from sudden cardiac arrest” after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 2.2 million Kansans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. There are no verified deaths associated with the vaccines in Kansas.

The virus, on the other hand, has killed at least 9,995 Kansans since it was first detected in the state three years ago, including 26 deaths reported between Feb. 1 and Feb. 8.

Greg Smith
Greg Smith, of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, supports changing state law so law enforcement officers don’t have to enforce health orders. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Greg Smith, a former state senator who is now with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement is not equipped to remove someone from their home during a public health emergency. But during questioning from Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, he acknowledged that the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office was never tasked with carrying out a health order during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he wasn’t aware of any law enforcement agency that did.

Ashley Goss, deputy secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said Steffen’s law would restrict the state’s ability to track the Ebola virus, even when someone entering Kansas has been exposed overseas, as well as the ability to treat patients for sexually transmitted diseases.

Dennis Kriesel, of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said current law allows people to challenge a public health policy in court if they feel they have been unjustly forced into isolation or quarantine.

“I would like to remind the committee that there is an assumption that people also have the freedom to be free of disease going into schools, going out into the public,” he said. “There are a number of Kansans who have exercised their right for religious and medical exemptions from certain immunizations, allowing someone to ignore recommendation, knowing they have measles, to expose others to it, puts lives at risk.”

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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.