GOP ends COVID emergency in Kansas; Kelly sees 'obstruction'

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas will struggle more to get residents vaccinated and thousands of families will lose extra food aid because top Republican legislators on Tuesday ended a state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic, a top aide Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said.

Will Lawrence, the governor’s chief of staff, said the state will no longer be able to use its National Guard to distribute vaccines or personal protective equipment and that addressing COVID-19 is “just going to be more difficult.”

Senate President Ty Masterson announced the cancellation of a meeting of eight leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature set for Tuesday afternoon. A law enacted in late March required the legislative leaders to sign off on an extension, and Masterson’s announcement means that the state of emergency was to expire at the end of the day Tuesday after being in place since March 2020.

Kelly accused Republicans of “political obstruction.” Kelly told reporters last week that she wanted the state of emergency to continue at least through August.

“A state disaster response has never been, and should not be, political,” Kelly said in a statement.

Six of the eight legislative leaders who were to meet Tuesday are Republicans, and the opposition of top GOP senators to an extension meant Kelly’s request would have been rejected. House GOP leaders also had been opposed.

“It is time for Kansas to return to normal,” Masterson, an Andover Republican, said in a joint statement with two other GOP leaders, Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, of Winfield, and Vice President Rick Wilborn, of McPherson.

Lawrence said Kelly will find ways to keep addressing COVID-19. Top Republicans said she could manage the winding down of Kansas’ response without a state of emergency.

The governor and Republican lawmakers have been at odds over her administration’s response to the pandemic nearly since spring 2020. They’ve forced her over time to accept ever greater limit on the governor’s power during the pandemic to keep the state of emergency in place.

Kelly sent top lawmakers a letter Friday outlining a plan for winding down emergency operations and said she would let seven executive orders expire.

The letter said Kelly would keep only two executive orders in place. One mandated that state-licensed nursing homes test their residents and staff regularly for COVID-19, and another granting temporary permission for medical personnel and students to give COVID-19 vaccinations.

Lawrence said those orders were to expire at the end of the day Tuesday, and medical and nursing home students and paramedics won’t be able to give COVID-19 shots. He said the state Department of Health and Environment might have the authority to issue nursing home testing.

He also said that the state will lose $14.5 million a month in extra federal aid an average of $230 a month per household.

“Sixty-three thousand households in Kansas are going to be impacted by this decision very directly and pretty immediately,” Lawrence told reporters.

But top House Republicans said Kelly failed to make a strong case for continuing the state of emergency, particularly when she was letting most of her executive orders expire.

“There are adequate medical personnel to meet the current demand for vaccines and the regular authority available to the governor under the laws of our state is sufficient to meet these needs,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe; Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, and Majority Leader Dan Hawkins said in a statement.

Kelly wanted legislative leaders to approve a 30-day extension, through July 15, the maximum allowed at one time by law. Top lawmakers refused late last month to give Kelly the maximum extension and Republicans signaled that they did not plan to grant another one.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 immunizations in Kansas have declined since early April, from a peak average of 29,380 shots a day for the first seven days of that month, to 5,523 for the seven days ending Monday, according to state Department of Health and Environment data.

The department said 43.3% of the state’s 2.9 million residents or about 1.26 million people had received at least one of two vaccine shots as of Monday. The state still had nearly 584,000 unused vaccine doses after asking for only 10.2% of its federal allocation last week.

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