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Kansas governor vetoes bill to strip power from public health officials on vaccines, quarantines

A legislator sitting in the Kansas House.
Julie Denesha
The rotunda of the Kansas State Capitol Building in Topeka, Kansas.

The bill would have clamped down state public health officials' ability test and quarantine Kansans for infectious diseases.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed legislation Friday that would have stripped the power to enforce quarantines from public health officials and squashed COVID-19 vaccination requirements for children attending child care or schools.

“Preventing Kansas’ local and state health officials from providing even basic testing for contagious human and zoonotic diseases — including measles, meningitis, Ebola, and polio — will hurt our ability to stop unnecessary outbreaks in the future,” Kelly said in a news release.

The bill proposed limiting the clout of state health officials by restricting their ability to enforce testing and quarantines. Under the bill’s language, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would only be able to educate and make recommendations to elected leaders on any public health action that would need to be taken.

It also included a portion forbidding any COVID-19 vaccine requirement to attend child care or grade schools.

Testimony from KDHE to legislators contended the agency hadno plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the required vaccine list for children.

The bill also required the KDHE secretary to study overdose deaths in the state.

Kelly’s veto reflects fallout between lawmakers and public health officials over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s about accountability to elected officials,” Republican state Rep. Will Carpenter said. “It’s about personal responsibility, and personal freedom.”

Several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle criticized how quickly the bill was being pushed through at the end of session.

“Our founding fathers did not rush to make the decisions that they did to give us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that we have today,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Republican from Wichita, said in opposition to the bill.

Landwehr chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. She said a lack of review and public comment drove her opposition. She urged lawmakers to wait until next year to tackle the two COVID portions of the bill.

“We also have a responsibility to do what’s right,” she said. “And do it with knowledge and information. Not to do it because we feel or because we fear.”

Supporters of the bill said waiting until the next session to do something would make it harder to pass legislation as people start to forget about issues during the pandemic.

“If we wait too long, some future legislature is going to have to deal with this again and will have to relearn the lessons that we have just learned over the last couple of years,” Sen. Mike Thompson said.

The bill narrowly passed 22-18 in the Senate and 63-56 in the House, both below the numbers needed to overturn a veto by the governor.

Both chambers officially ended the session at the end of April.

House Speaker Daniel Hawkins said last week that any bills the governor vetoes would be dead until the 2024 session or if they have a special session before then.

Samantha Horton covers health care for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SamHorton5.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Samantha Horton is a former health reporter for the Kansas News Service. She most recently worked as a fellow with the NPR Midwest Newsroom and the Missouri Independent.
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