Kansas Legislature votes to restrict health officials’ power to fight infectious diseases

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The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature voted Friday to prohibit the state’s top health official from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren as part of a far-reaching measure that severely restricts the power of state and local health officials to fight infectious disease.

The Senate approved the bill 22-18, followed by the House in a 63-56 vote — the bare minimum needed for passage. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is almost certain to veto it. A veto override appears highly unlikely given how narrowly the bill passed.

The bill removes the authority of public health officials and the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, who leads the state’s public health efforts, to mandate isolation or quarantines to control infections. It would also remove the secretary’s ability to offer testing for contagious diseases and the power of local public health officials to restrict gatherings.

In many instances, the secretary and other public health officials would be able to do little more than issue recommendations. The legislation also removes a requirement that local law enforcement assist in enforcing any order made by public health officials related to infectious diseases.

“I would say that this is the infectious diseases bill of rights,” Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat, said.

The passage of the bill in many ways marked an aggressive rebuke of how public health officials handled the pandemic, underscoring the anger that still exists among some GOP legislators years after the most intense phases of the pandemic.

“Why are we here talking about this? Because they trampled over everyone’s rights,” House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said during a gathering of Republican legislators.

Opponents sounded flabbergasted as the measure advanced through the Capitol on Friday. They warned of unforeseen and serious consequences if the power of health officials is curtailed.

“I think this conference committee report will cause huge havoc in public health. It is confusing to employers and is not great public policy,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who said on the Senate floor that his father had died from mad cow disease.

“If there is not someone who has the power to control disease, we will not control disease,” Longbine said.

Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and a physician, warned that the measure is “nothing more than, really, an attempt to dismantle public health, at least as I’ve known it my entire career.”

The measure represents a boiling over of long-simmering frustrations among many Republican legislators, especially over restrictions on gatherings and business closures during the early weeks of the COVID pandemic in Kansas. GOP lawmakers have long cast those restrictions, as well as mask mandates, as unacceptable intrusions on personal freedom.

“It was an abuse of power,” said Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican.

Several GOP lawmakers, such as Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee and Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson physician, have made a mark in Topeka with strident denunciations of the public health response to the pandemic. Thompson said the Legislature needed to act now because memories of the pandemic — and, by implication, anger over restrictions — would fade.

“If we wait too long, some future legislature is going to have to deal with it again and we’ll have to relearn the lessons that we have just learned over the last couple of years,” Thompson said.

Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, repeatedly emphasized that public health officials could make recommendations. And she suggested elected officials would have the power to order isolation and quarantine.

“Mad cow disease is awful but this has absolutely nothing to do with that,” Gossage said, referring back to Longbine’s speech.

But those arguments have done little to assuage opponents, who fear the long-term consequences of the proposal if it becomes law. Tracy Russell, the executive director of Nurture KC, an pro-vaccine organization,said the legislation sets a dangerous precedent for future vaccines and public health measures while unnecessarily politicizing the issue.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Janet Stanek has indicated there are no plans to require schoolchildren to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Russell said the Legislature, by advancing the bill, was giving credence to a loud minority of Kansans.

“It shouldn’t be subject to political consideration,” Russell said. “This is about science and this is about evidence. I would much prefer that people who are experts in contagious diseases are considering this.”

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat and the ranking minority member of the Senate committee on Public Health and Welfare, worried the bill could prevent necessary action from health officials in future pandemics.

“We don’t know what lies ahead of us,” she said. “Whether it’s a month or six months down the road, the secretary and our health departments need the ability to put things in place immediately so we don’t see an outbreak.”

The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting