Kansas health officials, political leaders reflect on lessons learned from COVID-19
Topeka As 2021 begins, health officials and elected leaders in Kansas are reflecting on the lessons learned so far about the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic governor
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said the pandemic showed Kansas that a “patchwork” response does not work. She closed schools in mid-March and late that month issued a stay-at-home order that remained in place for five weeks.
A law approved in June by the Republican-controlled Legislature gave the state’s 105 counties the authority to opt out of Kelly’s orders. She argued recently that she was forced to accept local control to keep a state of emergency for the pandemic in effect.
“I never thought it was a bright idea,” she said in an Associated Press interview.
She added, “It really puts pressure on the local elected officials that many of them would just as soon not have.”
The health system CEO
Russ Johnson, the CEO of LMH Health, said the lessons of the pandemic “cut across every jurisdiction” and include the importance of planning and community collaboration.
He said restrictions in early spring could be seen as an overreaction but “accelerated” his organization’s focus on COVID-19 “in a way that we might not have done otherwise.”
The chief clinical officer
Dr. Sam Antonios, chief clinical officer for the Ascension Via Christi health system, said “if you read history,” the coronavirus pandemic raised issues “eerily similar” to those facing communities during the deadly 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.
Antonios also said the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the need for a community health system that includes a strong workforce and healthy hospitals, clinics, technology, nursing homes and home health services.
“It has highlighted how important it is for that to be healthy in order for the community to remain healthy,” he said.
The study committee chairman
State Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican who was chairman of a committee that reviewed emergency management laws, said they were designed for short-term disasters, such as fires, floods and tornadoes. The law enacted in June applies only to the current pandemic. Lawmakers expect to consider permanent changes.
“I think we all believe that at the local level, people are better set up to make decisions on what’s impacting them,” Patton said. “It’s situations like this that sometimes challenges that belief, though.”
The Republican majority leaders
Incoming Kansas Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, both conservative Wichita Republicans, criticized Kelly for closing schools and businesses early in the pandemic. Many Republicans argued that Kelly’s actions damaged the economy more than necessary.
“If we learned anything from this, we learned we need to take measured approaches, step by step, and understand what we’re dealing with more so than just flying off the handle,” Suellentrop said.
When Kelly announced her stay-at-home order in late March, Kansas had reported six coronavirus deaths and fewer than 300 cases.
Kelly has argued that the state needed more information about COVID-19.
As of Friday, the state had reported a total of 2,879 deaths and 227,745 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.
“What we’ve learned is that the governor made a bunch of bad mistakes early on,” Hawkins said.
The Democratic lawmakers
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, argued that Republicans who criticized Kelly for being too aggressive early in the pandemic were “really overplaying” the issue of her closing businesses.
“You can talk about the closing period, but they have struggled since there have been no restrictions from the state,” Sawyer said. “Until we get COVID under control, you know, the economy is going to suffer, businesses are going to suffer, people are going to suffer.”
Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, added that Republican lawmakers “act like this was the only state that shut down business.”
The political scientist
Kelly on Wednesday received an early COVID-19 vaccine shot, while some top Republicans passed on the chance, saying they didn’t want to jump ahead of others who needed vaccines more. University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller described objections to Kelly’s early inoculation as arising from a political “theater industry.”
“It takes things, sometimes of little importance but sometimes of great importance, and then it repackages and it sells a movie script to you,” he said.
As for the pandemic, Miller said: “At this point, it’s just unavoidable that every single aspect of it is going to become political.”