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Governor: Kansas should drop local control of COVID-19 rules

December 23, 2020 GMT
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions regarding her testing strategy and number of COVID-19 cases during a press conference Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020 at the Statehouse in Topeka Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions regarding her testing strategy and number of COVID-19 cases during a press conference Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020 at the Statehouse in Topeka Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that Kansas should stop giving local officials the final say over the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic because experience has shown “a patchwork approach” does not work.

Kelly made the comments during an Associated Press interview a day after she and her top health administrator argued that Kansas is now controlling the spread of COVID-19 despite its high case numbers. They argued that the state is seeing the benefits of a “unified” state strategy to boost testing and an increased willingness by the state’s 105 counties to require people to wear masks, which she has pushed for months.

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The governor also said she would like legislators to rewrite a law that allows people exposed to COVID-19 to avoid providing information that would allow health officials to trace their close contacts. The law was enacted to protect people’s privacy, but health officials said it hinders disease tracking.

The Republican-controlled Legislature already has committed to considering changes in emergency management laws after opening its annual 90-day session Jan. 11. Lawmakers enacted a law in June covering the current pandemic, but its provisions and a state of emergency for the pandemic expire Jan. 26 if lawmakers do nothing.

“I would hope that rather than look at this through a political lens, that they would really look at it through lessons learned,” she said. “Well, if they look back, one of the things we learned is that a patchwork approach to a pandemic does not work.”

Kelly is likely to face strong resistance from Republicans for returning power to manage a pandemic to the governor’s office, particularly the authority to close businesses or impose statewide restrictions such as mask mandates. GOP leaders have argued repeatedly that local officials are best positioned to decide what works.

A top Republican in the GOP-controlled Legislature suggested Wednesday that the state is seeing success now in battling COVID-19 because Kelly adopted a softer, GOP-backed approach to dealing with the pandemic. In late October, Kelly contemplated forcing out-of-session legislators to reconvene to impose a statewide mask mandate, but top lawmakers pushed her instead to work with local officials. Efforts since have included a pro-mask public relations campaign.

“We asked the governor to take a new approach — one that appealed to Kansans to take care of each other instead of invoking fear and mandates,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said in a text to The Associated Press. “We’re optimistic that this new approach is working.”

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Data released by the state health department showed that Kansas averaged 2,160 new cases a day, along with 53 new COVID-19 hospitalizations and 36 deaths a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. But Kansas’ new case counts have been trending lower since peaking at an average of 2,767 for the seven days that ended Nov. 18.

Kansas added 5,089 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since Monday, pushing its pandemic total to 209,689. It added another 59 deaths, raising its COVID-19 death toll to 2,507.

Kelly and Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state health department, are now citing another statistic that relies on complex data and the accuracy of reported case numbers. It is seeks to measure how many other people an infected person is infecting in turn. Kelly and Norman said for Kansas, it has dropped to a statewide figure low enough to keep new case rates dropping if it is sustained over time. Norman acknowledged there are still virus hotspots generating new cases, though.

Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks in the spring to check the spread of COVID-19. Top Republican lawmakers thought she was too slow to reopen the economy and later forced her to accept local control over mask rules and restrictions on businesses.

“If they look back and they’re honest about what worked and what didn’t work, I think they’ll take a different approach,” Kelly said.

Her comments came as doses of coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna are being given to front-line health care workers.

Kelly’s staff has said the 70-year-old governor won’t get her first dose until it’s her turn. But she said Wednesday that the state is looking at giving shots to some officials for “continuity of operations.”

The health care workers who’ve received shots include Kelly’s 71-year-old husband, first gentleman Dr. Ted Daughety. He had retired as a pulmonary and sleep specialist, Kelly said, but he started working part-time again Friday at a respiratory clinic, screening patients with potential flu, pneumonia or COVID-19 symptoms before surgeries.

“Ted is extremely cautious, and you know, he’s worked in ICUs for years and understands what he needs to do,” she said. “He’s got full PPE on. He’s double-gloved. He’s got booties on. He’s got the mask and shield.”

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