UPDATED: Bill gives counties ability to depart from vaccine schedule

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Army Spc. Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

(Updated to include governor’s reaction from afternoon news conference)

The chairman of the Senate health committee on Wednesday introduced a bill allowing counties to depart from the state’s timeline for administering COVID-19 vaccinations.

Republican state Rep. Richard Hilderbrand is backing the bill in response to the state health department threatening to withhold vaccine doses from counties that didn’t comply with the phasing of the innoculations.

Hilderbrand said he wanted to stop the health department from threatening to withhold doses to enforce the state’s five-step plan for innoculating the public.

The governor said late Wednesday afternoon that the bill was not needed because the state was close to moving to the next stage of vaccinations.

The bill was introduced in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, which is exempt from deadlines established in legislative rules.

Hilderbrand, of Galena, said his legislation came about after the state health department recently ordered Riley County not to move to the third phase of vaccinations until other counties were ready to move to the next stage.

The state is currently in the second phase of administering vaccinations, which includes firefighters, police officers, corrections officers, grocery store workers, food service workers, teachers, custodians, drivers as well as workers in meat processing plants.

Also covered by the second phase is anyone living in licensed congregate settings where  social distancing is not possible, such as prisons and homeless shelters.

Riley County sought to move to the third phase, which covers Kansans ages 16 to 64 with serious medical conditions that increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including cancer, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, pregnant women and Type 2 diabetes.

The county released a statment March 1 saying it had been directed by the state not to move to the third phase before other counties were ready to move ahead.

The county said that state health officials indicated that vaccine shipments would be halted if it moved to the third phase.

Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that she didn’t think the bill was necessary because the state would be moving to the third phase “very soon.”

“My guess is the bill is unncessary. We’re going to be moving anyway, very soon,” she said.

“I really think this is one of those cases where there are other things the Legislature ought to be focusing on,” she said.

Kelly said her administration was following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“I’d like to think that Kansans are all in this together and that because a county…was able to get through their phase two more quickly than some of our larger counties because they got more doses per capita than our larger counties, that they would see this as part of the greater good in helping their neighbors,” she saie.

The fourth phase covers Kansans from 16 to 64 with medical conditions that increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 such as asthma, liver disease, Type 1 diabetes and severe obesity.

The rest of the general public will fall into Phase 5.