Kansas puts vaccine priority on grocery and meatpacking workers, after health care workers and nursing home residents

photo by: Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP

Gov. Laura Kelly discusses the early stages of a distribution plan of 150,000 COVID-19 vaccines by the end of December during her news conference with Kansas Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka.

TOPEKA — Kansas considers meatpacking plant workers and grocery store employees essential workers, putting them just behind health care workers and nursing home residents for coronavirus vaccines, Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday.

The Democratic governor also said members of the Republican-controlled Legislature won’t get any special treatment. Individual lawmakers will get vaccinated at different times, based on the risk outside of their political lives of being exposed to COVID-19 or developing serious complications once infected, she said.

Kelly’s comments about vaccines came shortly before the state Department of Health and Environment reported record seven-day spikes in both COVID-19 deaths and coronavirus hospitalizations.

The governor emphasized during a conference call with local officials and legislators that details about how the vaccines will be distributed remain fluid. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will consider this month whether to grant emergency authorization for vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, but doses of both will be rationed at first and it’s likely to take months for vaccines to be available for everyone.

Kansas’ vaccine plan calls for the first shots to go to front-line health care workers with a high risk of coronavirus exposure, including workers in nursing homes, as well as nursing home residents, Kelly said. In the second phase of distributing the vaccine, she said, the state will focus on essential workers, using definitions developed early in the pandemic.

“Those were, you know, obviously, our first responders, our meatpacking plant workers, grocery store workers and others,” Kelly said, adding that phase three will be vaccinating people 65 and older and younger people at high medical risk.

The state health department added 107 COVID-19 deaths to the state’s tally since Wednesday, bringing the pandemic total to 1,786. The state reported 37 additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Friday, surpassing the previous record of 27 a day, set in late November.

The department also said Kansas averaged a record 57 new coronavirus hospitalizations a day during the seven days ending Friday, beating the previous record of 53 for the seven days ending Wednesday. The state’s total for the pandemic increased by 127 since Wednesday to 5,417.

The health department reported another 6,234 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since Wednesday, increasing the state’s count 3.8% to 168,295. The state averaged 2,182 new cases a day for the seven days ending Friday.

The state’s prisons and nursing homes have been hit hard. And state hospitals for the mentally ill in Larned and Osawatomie and states hospitals for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Parsons and Topeka have together seen nearly 400 cases, with 119 still active.

The Department for Aging and Disability Services on Friday reported 245 total cases among the nearly 2,000 workers at the four hospitals, or one for every eight employees. Forty-five cases still are active and there’s been one staff death at the Larned hospital.

The department reported 137 cases among the hospitals’ 824 patients, or one for every six patients. Seventy-four remain active.

Department spokeswoman Cara Sloan said coronavirus-control measures include having daily screening and temperature checks and cleaning “high-touch” areas of the hospitals every four hours. She said one challenge in dealing with the virus is that many patients can’t be completely isolated because of their needs.

Sloan said control measures are effective but, “Certainly, the surge in community cases we’ve seen in the state over the past couple months has led to an increase in the number of positive cases reported in the state hospitals. ”

Kansas launched a new campaign this week to encourage people to get tested for coronavirus even if they don’t have symptoms such as a fever or cough, with a website listing seven sites for free testing. The campaign is addition to one launched last week aimed at encouraging people to wear masks.

“It’s this kind of screening which is going to help us identify positive cases early,” Kelly said.

The state last month hired 11 contractors to help as part of a “unified” strategy to boost testing. Kansas saw its testing jump in November to an average of 5,626 a day, up 41% from the average of 3,987 tests a day in October.

As for vaccines, if the FDA authorizes the emergency use of Pfizer’s, Kansas expects to receive the first of two doses for 23,750 people by mid-December. If the FDA authorizes the Moderna vaccine, Kansas expects to receive the first of two doses for 49,000 people later this month.

The state hopes to get the first vaccine doses for 150,000 people by the end of the year, enough to start vaccinations for one in every 19 of the state’s 2.9 million residents.

The question about where legislators rank in receiving the vaccine came from an unnamed lawmaker who emailed Kelly’s office to ask whether legislators would be eligible for early shots.

Lawmakers and lawmakers-elect plan to meet Monday at the Statehouse to pick their leaders for the next annual session, which convenes Jan. 11. The Legislature had its session this year interrupted and shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, which reached the state in early March.

“There will be no special provisions for legislators,” Kelly said.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, agreed that lawmakers should not get special treatment.

“I’m not better than anybody else,” Hawkins said.


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