Views from Kansas: Speaker’s silence was inexcusable

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman acted irresponsibly when he failed to fully inform colleagues and the state that he had been treated for COVID-19 in mid-July.

Ryckman’s silence may have endangered others.

More importantly, his failure to announce his illness robbed colleagues of their ability to decide for themselves if meeting with Ryckman in person was safe.

In a letter to Republicans last week, Ryckman said he had tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-July, and had been treated in a hospital. He said he’s now past “what doctors consider the contagious stage” and is recovering from the disease.

We are thankful for Speaker Ryckman’s recovery and extend our hope for his future good health.

But there is simply no acceptable explanation for Ryckman’s decision to keep his illness secret from other state officials, including Gov. Laura Kelly, for much of July and early August.

In an interview Thursday, he said the diagnosis came “the week of” July 13. He attended a meeting of the State Finance Council, which includes Kelly and other state officials, on July 29 in the Capitol. They were apparently unaware of Ryckman’s previous diagnosis.

The governor is 70 years old and is considered at higher risk for COVID-19. Others who were in the room on July 29, Republicans and Democrats, are in their 60s.

Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said he was cleared before attending the session. He said he had isolated himself for 16 days since his symptoms first appeared and had followed guidelines from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in returning to work.

Was a 16-day self-quarantine enough? The Centers for Disease Control says “people who are severely ill with COVID-19 might need to stay home … up to 20 days” after experiencing symptoms. Ryckman spent time in the hospital, suggesting it wasn’t a routine case of the deadly virus.

A 20-day quarantine for Ryckman would have lasted into August. He still could have participated in the July 29 meeting, remotely, while others attended in person. At least one other attendee made that choice.

If he was determined to participate in person, he could have informed other finance council members of his treatment. Then they could have decided for themselves if attendance was safe. Ryckman denied them the chance to make an informed assessment of the risks.

The House speaker’s silence was insensitive at best, and dangerous at worst. And what harm would have come from announcing his illness before the July 29 session? Nothing about the meeting would have changed. There was no need for secrecy.

In a statement last week, Kelly called Ryckman’s actions “reckless and dangerous.” In a reply, the speaker accused the governor of “fear mongering” and “public shaming.”

This back-and-forth is disappointing. Instead, the episode should remind Ryckman and others in the state that it will be impossible to end the COVID-19 nightmare unless everyone acts together to stop the spread of the virus. That’s the whole point of masks, social distancing, remote meetings, canceled classes and other preventive measures — everyone’s health is important.

Does the speaker understand this? In his memo last week, he said, “We must continue to look out for each other.” But he sent the letter only to Republicans — leaving out Democrats. That’s appalling.

When historians study the nation’s coronavirus response a century from now, they will be aghast. COVID-19 kills Republicans and Democrats with equal vigor, yet our every reaction seems aimed not at stopping the virus, but at making the other side look bad.

Ron Ryckman’s silence is part of that sad pattern of putting partisanship above public health.

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star


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