Yesterday, we learned that KDHE ordered Riley County to stop vaccinating people until other counties caught up, and threatened to withhold future vaccine shipments.  Today, Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration admits they threaten to withhold promised vaccine doses as an enforcement mechanism; in this case, to deter counties that want to prioritize 64-year-old cancer patients over 22-year-old fast food workers.

Ashley Jones-Wisner, spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told the Associated Press that withholding vaccines is “an enforcement mechanism.”

“The goal is to ensure that those at the highest risk of COVID-19 are prioritized for vaccination, and the vaccine is distributed across counties fairly,” she told the AP.

According to the CDC, Kansas ranks dead last in vaccine distribution among the 50 states as of March 3. To date, the state administered 64.23% of the vaccines it received. On average, states administered 74.89% of the doses they received.

The Kelly administration says the Kansas data lags reality, blaming technical and reporting challenges for the discrepancy. The excuses tire some Kansas lawmakers.

“Time and again, Governor Kelly has told us that Kansas is only trailing the rest of the country because of reporting delays,” House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said. “Once again, after weeks of opportunity to improve reporting and fix distribution problems, Governor Kelly’s excuses sound hollow. It’s time to end the blame game.”

Kansas is in Phase 2 of its vaccination program. Under the plan, those over the age of 65, prisoners, first responders, healthcare workers, and high contact critical workers like grocers and fast food workers are eligible for shots in Phase 2. Those with medical conditions that make them most at-risk for serious complications from COVID, like 64-year-old cancer patients, are not eligible for shots until Phase 3. 

Kelly admin threatens to withhold vaccines from Riley, Sedgwick

Riley County moved swiftly to vaccinate older residents and front-line workers. They prepared to start inoculating medically at-risk Kansans. However, the Kelly administration told them to stop. Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials warned they would halt vaccine distribution to the county if they vaccinated people in Phase 3.  Riley County canceled vaccine appointments for some of its most vulnerable citizens as a result.

“They could have sent someone out from KDHE to look at what Riley County was doing right,” said John Ford, Riley County Commissioner. “Or they could have looked at the things we’re doing well and applied it to everyone else instead of saying no.”

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare committee, agreed that government overreach is slowing the Kansas vaccine rollout.

“This administration would be doing Kansans a favor if they would take a step back, get out of the way, and take some lessons from these counties that know how to get things done,” he said. 

Health officials in Sedgwick County garnered threats from KDHE when they asked for the flexibility to vaccinate people with certain cancers, or heart, kidney, liver, and pulmonary disease, the Wichita Eagle reported. According to the paper, KDHE warned moving sick people to the front of the line would result in losing vaccine doses.

“When you consider the Governor’s decision to stringently enforce a one-size-fits-all approach to vaccination and her action to threaten counties that attempt to outperform her administration’s plan with reducing or denying shipments of their COVID vaccines entirely, this administration’s lack of concern for the wellbeing of our most vulnerable becomes very clear,” Hawkins said.

One-size-fits-all slows vaccine rollout

Hilderbrand calls the enforcement mechanism threats to counties, “ridiculous.”

“This only proves that it isn’t a reporting issue that is causing Kansas to continually rank last in COVID vaccination distribution. Rather, it is this administration’s misplaced prioritization schedule and its unquenchable appetite to micromanage anything and everything that they can,” he said.

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