Senate urges Kelly to reprioritize prisoners for vaccines

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The Kansas Senate on Thursday rebuked Gov. Laura Kelly for putting prisoners in line for COVID-19 vaccines ahead of the general public, a move that a Democrat characterized as political theater to bash the governor.

The Senate voted 28-8 to approve the nonbinding resolution, which urges the governor to reshuffle her vaccination plan so that prisoners would be removed from the second phase and placed behind other parts of the population.

The resolution, sponsored by Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand of Galena, said that the  elderly, teachers, and those from 16 to 64 with “severe” medical risks should be moved ahead of prisoners.

It also praised former President Donald Trump’s adminstration for “its ability to accelerate and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19,” something that Democrat Sen. Tom Holland said was “patently false.”

“This resolution by no means says, ‘Do not vaccinate incarcerated individuals,'” Hilderbrand said. “What it is saying is, ‘Please reprioritize them to the proper category with the rest of the law-abiding citizens of Kansas.”

Hilderbrand said the resolution does not adddress corrections officers, saying they should be among those first in line for a shot.

“The whole intention is to send a strong message to this governor, to our (health) secretary…to take incarcerated individuals out of being prioritized above law-abiding citizens,” he said.

Holland said the resolution was a contrived effort to make the governor look bad.

“It’s a political stunt,” Holland said. “To me, it is a hit job on the governor.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Longbine said the issue was personal for him, saying his 21-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes and can’t yet get a vaccine under the phasing of the governor’s plan but is still vulnerable to the virus.

“For me it’s not political at all, it’s personal. It’s real personal when I look at my daughter and I try to figure out why I can’t get her a vaccine,” he said.

Longbine noted that Type 1 diabetics fall into phase four of the vaccination plan.

“I’m supposed to explain to my daughter that she can’t live a normal life, that she has to stay home and manage her blood sugar to the best of her ability because we’re going to give vaccines to prisoners first.”

State Health Secretary Lee Norman has said that federal health officials have recommended vaccinating anyone living in a congregate 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.

Last fall, the virus swept through a nursing home in Norton County – infecting all 63 residents and killing 10 – at about the same time there was an outbreak at the Norton Correctional Facility.

About one in five of all state and federal inmates have been infected with the virus, a rate more than four times as high than the general population, according to an analysis by The Associated Press and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit, online journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice issues.

At least 275,000 prisoners have been infected and more than 1,700 have died across the nation, according to the report.

In Kansas, there have been about 1,100 corrections staff infected with the virus and about 5,900 prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19.