Lawmakers seek vaccine details from health secretary

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Republican lawmakers on Tuesday peppered the state’s top doctor with questions about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, expressing frustration they couldn’t glean more details about who’s been inoculated and where Kansans can get a shot.

Lawmakers homed in on nursing home residents, pressing Health Secretary Lee Norman for the percentage of residents in long-term care facilities who have been vaccinated as part of the first phase of the governor’s vaccination plan.

Norman didn’t have the data immediately available at Tuesday’s joint meeting of the Senate and House health committees, raising questions with lawmakers about how they will know when the state will move to a new phase of the vaccination rollout.

They also quizzed him during an hourlong hearing about how Kansas residents will know they’re eligible for a vaccine and where they can get inoculated, especially since county governments will play a key role in those decisions.

“One of our biggest concerns is communication and the lack thereof,” said Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner of Louisburg.

Even with Norman’s testimony, Baumgardner said it was unclear where Kansans will go to find out when and where they can get a vaccine.

“Is it going to be the county commissioners? Is it going to be the county health official? Is it going to be the hospitals?” Baumgardner asked.

Molly Baumgardner

“I understand we’re not going to uniformly do it the same in every county,” she said.

“But there doesn’t seem to be a consistent manner for any Kansan to know when and where they are to go.”

Norman explained that the state hadn’t implemented its own vaccination schedule because local officials, health departments and hospitals wanted to have the ability to control their own program.

He said local health officials, including county governments, have the power to move to the next stage of vaccinations when they’ve completed the first phase and have vaccines available.

He also said they have the authority to elevate someone into a higher priority for a vaccination.

“We don’t have to move as an entire state in lockstep at the same moment in time,” Norman told the committee.

The governor has a five-phase plan for the vaccinations with the first phase focused on high-risk health care workers and nursing home residents.

The second phase, which is believed to cover a third of the state’s population, covers workers who are critical to state security, the economy, public health, or who work with lots of people and could be more at risk of coming down with COVID-19.

The second phase includes firefighters, police officers, first responders, corrections officers, grocery store workers, food service workers, teachers, custodians, drivers, and other staff 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.

The general public is not eligible until the fifth, and final, phase.

Norman said the state health department is working on an interactive map that would allow Kansans to click on a county to get information about vaccines in their area.

But Republican state Rep. Doug Blex of Independence said his constituents are confused about whether they can get a vaccine from their health care provider or from the county health department.

“How do I get the shot?” he asked bluntly. “There seems to be a lot of confusion between the local health providers and the county health departments.

“The county health departments will say call your local health provider and vice versa,” he said. “Nobody seems to know what’s going on.

“It seems to appear that nobody seems to know where I can get my shot.”

Norman said the first phase of the rollout has been a limited group of people, with the vaccines going to local heath departments, hospitals and safety-net health providers.

Norman said there is no excuse for confusion, saying he meets regularly with local health officials about the vaccination program.

The health secretary also ran into questions about the decision to vaccinate state prisoners, a move that has been sharply criticized by Republicans.

Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, chair of the Senate health committee, asked Norman what percentage of Kansas prisoners had been vaccinated. So far, none.

Hilderbrand asked Norman why the state would prioritize someone for a vaccine who is in jail over a senior in the general public who had suffered from cancer or had a heart attack.

Norman said federal health officials have recommended vaccinating anyone living in a congregant setting, including prisons.

Norman said he recognized the controversy related to the issue but noted that inmates are more vulnerable to contracting the virus because they can’t socially distance nor limit their contact with others.

He also noted that prisons can be a COVID-19 hot spot that can lead to the virus spreading throughout the community.

“These type of settings like this put the community at risk,” Norman said. “You might physically have a wall around the prison, but people come and go all the time.

“Many of the inmates are on work-release programs, they go from one jail to the next as part of their movement through the correctional system.

“To eradicate a disease in the community, you have to get (the vaccine) into every kind of congregate setting, including prisons,” he said.