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Kansas governor signs a new COVID-19 disaster declaration after hospitals beg for help

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is the target of pressure from Republicans urging her to drop federal pandemic unemployment payments.

Kansas hospital and public health leaders urged Gov. Laura Kelly to take action, citing the wave of health workers sidelined by COVID-19 and the influx of seriously ill patients.

Gov. Laura Kelly responded to mounting staff shortages at Kansas hospitals and nursing homes Thursday by issuing a new COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration and companion executive orders temporarily suspending laws and regulations on health care providers.

The disaster declaration and supplemental orders were tied to evidence of a significant upswing in coronavirus cases following the winter holidays and spread of delta and omicron variants of coronavirus. Thirteen percent of Kansas’ cases during the pandemic emerged in the past month. Medical professionals in Kansas anticipate the state’s COVID-19 numbers to worsen through January and into early February.

Kelly said “we must be clear-eyed and honest about the threats we are facing.”

“Hospitals have sounded the alarm about the impact the surge is having on their facilities, their staff and the patients,” Kelly said. “This is our opportunity to help.”

On Wednesday, Kansas hospital and public health leaders urged Kelly to take administrative action because of the wave of health workers sidelined by COVID-19 and the influx of seriously ill patients.

Under current state law, the governor’s disaster declaration could stand for 15 days. The Kansas Legislature convenes Monday to begin the 2022 session, and could take up new pandemic bills. Kelly said she would work with the House and Senate to pass legislation to extend the executive orders through the month of March.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, a Republican from Olathe, said the governor’s latest COVID-19 action should provide “temporary and necessary relief and flexibility” to a health system in the state stressed by staffing shortages and increased hospitalizations. He said the Kansas House would continue to support frontline health workers.

“However,” Ryckman said, “we do not and will not support shutting down businesses and government mandates. If the governor attempts to go beyond reducing burdensome regulations for the health care system, we will oppose those measures.”

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said convening of the Legislature next week led him to question timing of the governor’s disaster declaration. He endorsed relaxation of regulations to assist with staffing problems at long-term care facilities and hospitals. He expected the Legislature to support regulatory reform related to the pandemic, but object to “any new mandates, shutdowns or other restrictive measures.”

The campaign of Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for governor in August, said on social media the Legislature should make certain Kelly didn’t make unnecessary use of emergency powers. Kelly is seeking re-election in 2022, and likely would face Schmidt in the November general election.

“The Legislature must exercise strict oversight of her use of emergency powers this time to ensure her actions remain sensible, narrowly tailored and tightly limited,” Schmidt said. “Better for the Legislature and governor to work together this time around.”

Schmidt was critical of Kelly’s early pandemic executive orders limiting mass gatherings at churches, closing certain businesses and shifting schools to online instruction. He disparaged the governor’s imposition of statewide mask mandates and stay-at-home orders.

The governor emphasized that she wasn’t interested in issuing any mandates or closures. Instead, the new orders are narrowly tailored for hospitals and long-term care facilities.

The first of her new orders allows physician assistants and advanced practice nurses to order the collection of throat swabs for COVID-19 testing, so that a physician’s order isn’t required. It also allows nursing staff with inactive or lapsed licenses to provide medical services, as well as students enrolled in medical programs and military medical personnel.

The second order allows for temporary aides to provide direct care for residents in nursing homes, freeing certified staff to focus on higher-level care needs.

Kelly said she didn’t anticipate deploying Kansas National Guard personnel to assist medical care providers.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Wednesday that during the past month Kansas recorded increases of 71,900 cases, 1,240 hospitalizations and 306 deaths associated with COVID-19.

Since KDHE began publicly reporting pandemic statistics in early 2020, Kansas has recorded 549,700 cases, 17,214 hospitalizations and 7,059 fatalities. Nearly one-fifth of the state’s 2.9 million residents have contracted COVID-19 during that period.

The numbers are bad, Kelly said, but there is reason for optimism. Because omicron symptoms are less severe, it will lead to a significant reduction in hospitalizations and deaths as it becomes the dominant strain, she said.

Kelly has consistently endorsed vaccination programs embraced by federal, state and local public health officials designed to limit medical complications of COVID-19.

“Every person who gets vaccinated or gets a third shot is helping our hospitals and our front line health care workers,” the governor said. “They are helping ensure that patients seeking care in hospitals for non COVID illnesses and injuries will be able to get the attention they need. They’re helping their immunocompromised and high risk family and friends.”

Kelly Sommers, director of the Kansas State Nurses Association, said she appreciated the governor’s attention to the staffing crisis. But she urged the governor and legislative leaders to involve nurses, rather than hospital executives, in policy conversations to get a “full picture of what is happening with staff.”

Without those conversations, Sommers said, the situation will only get worse.

“Nurses are one of the strongest individual health care professionals, but this has taken a huge toll on their emotional and physical health,” Sommers said. “Nurses provide the highly skilled care to patients 24/7 without leaving the floor during their shift. They are spending more time caring for everyone else and have no time to care for themselves. If you bring nurses to the table in all levels of decision-making, we can slowly heal the health care system as a whole.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas Reflector.

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.
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