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Kansas reports COVID-19 death surge amid 1st vaccine shots

December 17, 2020 GMT
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Nason Lui, a general surgeon at Stormont Vail Health, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Wednesday morning, Dec. 16, 2020, at Stormont Vail Events Center in Topeka, Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)
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Nason Lui, a general surgeon at Stormont Vail Health, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Wednesday morning, Dec. 16, 2020, at Stormont Vail Events Center in Topeka, Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — COVID-19 deaths have surged in Kansas in the past week and nearly every part of the state has lost people to the disease caused by the coronavirus, health statistics show.

Kansas averaged a record 45 new reported COVID-19 deaths per day for the seven days that ended Wednesday, according to state Department of Health and Environment data. The department reported 144 new deaths since Monday, pushing the state’s pandemic death toll to 2,253.

Like other states, Kansas received its first shipment of a vaccine made by Pfizer on Monday and began getting it to health care workers, prison workers and nursing home staff and residents.

State officials hope Kansas will receive is first shipment of a vaccine made by Moderna next week, if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorizes its emergency use this week, as expected. But Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that the vaccine won’t be available to all adults for months, until the end of next spring.

People have died in at least 103 of the state’s 105 counties, according to a COVID-19 dashboard operated by Reno County in southern Kansas.

“We must not become numb to rising cases and deaths, not forget that each statistic represents a real person— a friend, a neighbor, a loved one,” Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference.

Despite the growing number of deaths and cases — and a doubling of deaths locally in less than a month — the all-Republican Reno County Commission was expected to repeal a local mask mandate.

A health order including a mask mandate and a 10-person limit on gatherings is due to expire Friday. Commissioner Ron Hirst indicated Tuesday that he wants to drop the mask mandate and he likely has the support of interim Commissioner Mark Steffen, though Steffen would like to go further and rescind the health order, The Hutchinson News reported.

Interim Reno County Health Officer Karen Hammersmith told the commission Tuesday that she plans to issue a new order Friday that would remain in place for another month. But Steffen attacked the county’s mitigation efforts as “not moving the needle.”

Reno County reported 81 COVID-19 deaths as of Wednesday, up from 40 on Nov. 20. The state health department said it had 6,377 confirmed and probable cases, up 20% over two weeks, to one case for every 10 residents.

“Your health order doesn’t do nothing,” Steffen said. “It’s an imposition on free will and individual rights. We don’t need it and it’s not changing a thing. It would make a lot of people happy to not have it.”

But Kelly responded: “The research dictates very clearly that masks work. Other mitigation efforts add to that, so, you know, we just need to look at the facts.”

The state health department on Wednesday added 4,551 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases to the state’s pandemic tally since Monday, increasing it by 2.4% to 194,569, or one case for every 15 Kansas residents. The state averaged 2,109 new cases per day for the seven days that ended Wednesday.

Kelly, a Democrat, told The Associated Press after her news conference that the Republican-controlled Legislature should “think very carefully” about convening in-person at the Statehouse in January for its annual, 90-day session, as opposed to meeting remotely. GOP lawmakers have regularly not worn masks at meetings this summer and fall.

“There’s no way in this building (the Statehouse) to have those meetings without close proximity to each other,” Kelly said. “We really need to look at a different way of doing this.”

At least six legislators have had the virus since March, including incoming Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. Spokesman Mike Pirner said Wednesday that Masterson had a mild symptoms in mid-October, self-quarantined for 14 days and didn’t return to his normal activities until he’d had two consecutive negative tests. He was at the Statehouse for a Nov. 9 meeting but practiced social distancing, Pirner said.

Legislative leaders last month approved $3 million in upgrades to technology for livestreaming video and audio from meetings.

But Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, issued a legal opinion last week saying the state constitution requires the Legislature to meet in Topeka and for a majority of each chamber’s members to be “present together in the same room” to pass bills.

Asked about Schmidt’s opinion, Kelly said: “There are times when you just suspend the rules because of circumstances.”

Masterson said in an emailed statement that legislative leaders are looking at ways to conduct business safely but added, “We must respect the Kansas Constitution, even in times of crisis.”

Meanwhile, the state has stopped housing inmates in a privately run prison in Arizona after delaying their planned end-of-June return for nearly six months because of the pandemic.

The Kansas Department of Corrections said 118 inmates returned Tuesday from the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. They’re in quarantine for three weeks at a newly built prison in Lansing in the Kansas City area.

Kansas reported 85 coronavirus cases among its inmates housed in Arizona. However, the department said Monday that none of those cases were active.

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Kansas moved inmates to Arizona last year to prevent crowding in its state prisons, but those prisons were at 81% of their capacities last week, in part because the pandemic has delayed criminal trials and court commitments of offenders.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apdjhanna