Kansas speeding up COVID shots to hit May target; official says state can handle 5 times as many vaccines

photo by: Associated Press

Dr. Lee Norman, head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, answers questions about the COVID-19 pandemic during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Updated at 5:58 p.m. Monday

TOPEKA — Kansas will give COVID-19 vaccinations faster than planned so that all adults with medical conditions can seek shots next week and the state will aim for President Joe Biden’s goal of having inoculations available for all adults May 1, Gov. Laura Kelly announced Monday.

Kelly said the state will launch both the third and the fourth phase of its planned vaccine distribution next week, a week before the expected arrival of 100,000 doses of a single-shot vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson. The combined phase will cover about 600,000 of the state’s 2.9 million residents, after the first two phases covered twice that number.

“I know we are all ready to resume our pre-pandemic lives, and we’re getting close,” Kelly said after touring a mass vaccination site at Topeka’s largest arena and convention center.

Both Kelly and Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state Department of Health and Environment, said the supply of vaccines from the federal government has been the biggest hurdle to moving faster on giving shots. Yet Kelly declared herself “pretty comfortable” that the state can hit its new timetable.

“If something happens and we have to pull back, we will do that, but we’re not anticipating that,” Kelly told reporters.

People aged 16 to 64 with medical conditions, including cancer, diabetes and asthma, that put them at risk of complications or death from COVID-19 will be eligible for shots. Kelly and the state Department of Health and Environment had held some of the state’s counties back from starting inoculations for such residents until all counties had finished vaccinating residents 65 and older during the second phase.

The Democratic governor has faced strong criticism for weeks from Republicans in the GOP controlled Legislature over what they view as a slow distribution effort. They have been especially critical of the state’s refusal to allow counties to go ahead with vaccinating cancer patients under 65.

The state previously had planned to begin phase three, covering people under 65 with the most serious medical risks, by early April and phase four, covering people with less serious medical risks, by mid-May. Kansas residents 16 and older with no medical risks would have had to wait until June to be eligible for their shots.

The governor’s announcement came only hours after Norman told the state Senate health committee that Kansas could distribute five times as many COVID-19 vaccine doses as it is currently receiving from the federal government without “working overly hard at it” and handle as many as 1.5 million shots a week.

Biden pledged last week that all American adults would be eligible for shots by May 1.

Data released Monday by the state health department showed that the number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in Kansas has accelerated to an average of about 22,300 a day for the seven days ending Monday. But Kansas still reported administering less than 855,000 doses overall.

Norman said the state is now receiving between 140,000 and 150,000 vaccine doses a week. Kelly and Norman acknowledged that Kansas can’t be sure that Johnson & Johnson will be able to regularly deliver as many doses at a time after the first 100,000 arrive. Kansas health care providers can operate as many as 1,450 vaccination sites, Norman said.

The state health department reported Monday that about 568,000 of the state’s 2.9 million residents or 19.5% had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The department said Kansas sites have administered almost 73% of the 1.17 million doses the state has received.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, was skeptical of Norman’s assessment that the state could distribute far more vaccine doses.

“We don’t see evidence that they could,” Hawkins said.

State data Monday showed Kansas averaged 252 new confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases a day for the seven days ending Monday, its lowest seven-day rolling average since late June 2020. The department added only 470 cases since Friday to its total tally for the yearlong pandemic, bringing it to 298,218.

The state added 11 additional deaths to its pandemic total since Friday, bringing it to 4,835. Kansas averaged three additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Monday.

Meanwhile, the Kansas House gave first-round approval Monday to a bill that would require all of the state’s 286 public school districts to offer full, in-person classes to all students by March 26. The Senate approved the measure earlier this month, and the House plans to take a final vote Tuesday to determine whether it passes and goes to Kelly.

State Department of Education data shows that only six districts don’t plan to have most of their students back in all in-person classes by March 26.

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