Kansas moves into second phase of COVID-19 immunizations

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Kansas is shifting into the second phase of coronavirus immunizations as the Republican-led state House on Thursday approved a bill that would extend the state’s pandemic emergency declaration.

The 119-3 vote sends the bill to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who has until Jan. 26 to act before the declaration expires. It expands the use of telemedicine and adds flexibility in health care licensing through March 31. But it also limits Kelly’s ability to close businesses and allows counties to opt out of mask mandates and other health orders she issues.

The move comes as Kelly said communities can move beyond immunizing health care workers and long-term care residents.

She urged patience, noting that the next phase includes about 1 million Kansans, including those ages 65 and older, prisoners, and essential workers such as teachers and law enforcement officers. However, the next weekly shipment of vaccine from the federal government contains only about 45,000 new first doses.

She was hopeful, though, noting that President Joe Biden is vowing to ramp up vaccination production and distribution.

“Hallelujah,” she said in a news conference. “We have needed this for a long time. The response to this kind of emergency really does need to be driven from the federal government down to the state governments.”

Kelly said that local health departments will decide how their limited supply of the doses will be allocated by population groups.

“They know their communities best and they will know best how to distribute these vaccines among their residents," she said, describing the phases as “flexible and strategic."

Many are prioritizing older residents. In Douglas County, demand has been strong, with all 500 appointments for a Jan. 29 mass vaccination event for people 65 and older filled within a half hour of health officials announcing it Wednesday night.

The vaccination of prisoners has been controversial despite massive outbreaks that have infected thousands.

Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state health department, provided no timeline and said the vaccination of inmates would be a joint effort of the state and the counties.

“Every county is different and the impact that a correctional facility has had has not been the same across counties," he said, adding that counties will get to choose “how early or late in the phase that they choose to recommend that vaccinations start."

He stressed biggest challenge so far was a lack of vaccine.

“I think it is really important to dispel the myth that we are sequestering away or warehousing and keeping at the state level vaccine,” Norman said. “We are not. We are pushing out all the vaccine that we get.”