Riley County officials confirm that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) threatened to withhold promised vaccine shipments if officials didn’t stop vaccinating people until other counties caught up. The county is about finished with Phase 2 and planned to begin Phase 3, vaccinating adults 18-64 with medical conditions that could lead to serious health complications from COVID-19.

Riley County officials intended to host vaccination events this week. They planned to provide the first of two doses to some of its most vulnerable citizens. But officials scrapped those plans after the Kelly administration warned it would halt vaccine shipments unless the county limited its efforts to Phase 2 eligible people.

According to Kansas’s state vaccination plan, high contact critical workers like grocery store workers, aviation manufacturers, retail and warehouse laborers, and those who work for the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Motor Vehicles are eligible for shots in Phase 2. Phase 2 eligibility also extends to those over the age of 65, corrections facility inmates and staff, home caregivers, and congregate childcare institutions.

Accordingly, KDHE says a 22-year-old fast food worker and prisoners under age 65 meet vaccine eligibility in Phase 2, but not a 64-year-old cancer patient is not eligible.  Riley County is ready to start vaccinating those under 64 with serious health issues, but KDHE and Governor Kelly say they must wait.

“From the beginning, Riley County Health Department prioritized two groups — those without whom the community cannot function, such as firefighters and water treatment plant operators and those most at risk of serious illness and death,” Riley health officer Julie Gibbs said. “We vaccinated health care workers and first responders and the elderly with serious health conditions first, followed by others over 65, as those are the population that makes up the overwhelming majority of deaths in this pandemic.”

County officials operated in good faith

The county anticipated hosting a vaccination and testing clinic in Leonardville on March 3. The testing occurred as scheduled. Officials provided a second shot to some individuals in Leonardville but did not administer initial doses as planned.

“We feel strongly that it is right to vaccinate those at greatest risk of serious illness or death ahead of people whose jobs can be conducted remotely, or where there are multiple sources for the same service,” Gibbs said. “It has been our understanding all along that under Kansas’ Home Rule doctrine, counties had the latitude to apply KDHE’s guidance as it best fits our individual county situation. However, we will follow KDHE’s directive and reprioritize the order in which we are vaccinating residents of Riley County.”

In addition to canceling scheduled vaccinations, the Riley health department withdrew its offer to share 400 doses with neighboring Pottawatomie County. Pottawatomie officials planned to use the doses to vaccinate those 65 and older.

Riley County Commissioner John Ford is angry.

“This whole last year has been such a panic, such a struggle, and this finally was the moment where I broke,” he said. “I crossed a threshold. For lack of a better term, I’m pissed off at this one.”

According to Ford, the county didn’t do everything right in its COVID response, but officials prepared to administer vaccines. Ford likes the county’s results. 

County uses fast food approach to vaccine distribution

“Think of a Chick-fil-A approach. That’s how we’re rolling with it,” he said.

Ford received his second shot a few weekends ago. Thirty-eight minutes passed from the time he arrived at the vaccination site in Cico Park to the time he received the shot.

“The following Sunday, I sat in a Burger King drive through for 40 minutes waiting for food,” he said. “You can get a shot right now if the county is left alone. And we’re able to do what we need to do quicker than you can get a Whopper.”

County officials planned based on home rule authority.

Swiftly moving through the phases is intentional, according to Ford. Riley County is home to Manhattan and Kansas State University. A large swath of the county population disperses at the end of the university’s spring semester. County officials hoped to jab as many people as possible prior to that date.

“We operated in good faith that each county was given the authority to distribute vaccine doses according to the needs of their county,” Gibbs said.

The Kelly administration did not respond to requests for information related to this story.

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