Partisan posturing is spreading Covid

Let’s take a moment to consider what has happened in Kansas since the start of this pandemic.

Back in March, when the pandemic started to spread in Kansas, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly took decisive action to slow the spread and ultimately “flatten the curve.” She ordered school buildings closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year and issued orders to keep people at home and out of bars and restaurants, and she limited gatherings. It worked. By May and into June, Kansas saw cases decline and the curve begin to flatten.

John Hopkins University, Kansas New Cases Trend and Prediction

At that point, under pressure from Republican legislative leaders who apparently believed President Trump’s pronouncement that the virus would just disappear with summer heat, Governor Kelly issued the Ad Astra phased re-opening plan. 

A sensible and responsible phased plan was- of course- too much for the partisans running the Kansas Legislature. They decided that governors (particularly DEMOCRATIC governors) should have no power to do anything about emergencies. It is important to note that the legislature never interfered in a REPUBLICAN governor’s ability to take action in an emergency. It only became an issue when the emergency was faced by a DEMOCRATIC governor who was handling it well. 

Governor Kelly still had emergency powers, however, so the Republicans used a special legislative session to push through changes to the emergency management act that would make sure the governor was stripped of the authority to take any action to save lives and stop the spread of this pandemic in Kansas. 

Governor Kelly wearing a Kansas-themed mask at one of her COVID-19 press events.

Here’s what the Republican majority have done:

  • Set up a Republican-dominated leadership review of any orders the governor issues and giving those Republicans (who outnumber the Democrats on the State Finance Council) the authority to overturn those orders.
  • Granted authority to county commissions to modify or ignore an order that the legislative Republicans chose not to overturn.
  • Granted county commissions the right to ignore any recommendations from their own county health directors and according to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt (who has been rumored to be Governor Kelly’s Republican opponent in 2022) those county commissioners can essentially declare themselves health authorities. 

So where once we had a duly-elected governor making decisions based on the recommendations of the state’s chief health officer, Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Department of Health and Environment, we now allow partisan politicians to refuse to accept those decisions. 

Speaker of the House, Ron Ryckman Jr. (R) & Senate President, Susan Wagle (R)

Now, we understand that people can disagree about how to approach a crisis. But here’s the problem – in Kansas, one person, following the advice of the state’s chief medical officer, is proposing solutions based on science and medical expertise while another group of people (Republican Legislative Leadership) are doing everything they can to stop those solutions from being implemented. And to make matters worse, those same Republican leaders have no alternative proposals to stop the spread of this deadly virus. Their solution is to politely suggest that people think about whether or not it is convenient for them to actually do something to save lives. Just like, many years ago, when I politely suggested my five-year-old snack on carrot sticks instead of gummy bears. 

So what is the result? A tremendous spike in cases and deaths (about 70 new cases per day in May, almost 530 new cases per day and still climbing today). Kansans are sick and dying because, in a highly partisan act, Republican legislators prohibited our Democratic governor from solving a crisis. Such partisans can’t stomach the thought of Governor Kelly getting the credit if her orders were to save lives and actually allow schools and businesses to reopen safely and stay open.

Making matters even worse, in the latest partisan political move, Attorney General Schmidt now opines that Kelly’s latest order to protect children and school employees can’t be enforced. Kelly issued an order mandating masks, social distancing, and hygiene in our reopening schools. Republican legislative leaders asserted that not only can counties overturn her orders to ensure school safety but every local board of education can do the same. The governor noted that the changes to the law only give county commissions power to ignore science-based medical expertise and common sense but Schmidt asserted in his opinion that local boards of education are also free to ignore science, ignore medical expertise, and ignore any efforts by the Governor to protect the health of all Kansans from Johnson County to Johnson City.

So there you have it. Republicans who have no substantive alternative proposals to save lives and contain the spread of a deadly pandemic have deliberately prohibited the governor from enacting the recommendations of the state’s health officials. Science and public safety die on the altar of political partisanship. 

Can we learn from the experiences of others?

To get an idea of how things might go as schools reopen, one need only look at the experiences now being reported in Georgia – a state that has repeatedly ignored the advice of scientists, medical practitioners, health officials, and epidemiologists. 

In the Cherokee School District, 40 miles north of Atlanta, the school board refused to issue a mask mandate. Eight days after reopening, the district is now closed with 59 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The district now has 1,156 students and 37 staff members in quarantine. Click here to read more.

This in addition to Paulding High School in Georgia that gained notoriety after a student was suspended for posting a photograph of a school hallway crowded with mask-less students. After massive public pressure, the suspension was rescinded but again the school was closed after six students and three staff members tested positive for the virus. The school was being disinfected but experts note that such disinfecting is a practice that offers only marginal protection against the virus, which primarily spreads through person-to-person contact, not from contaminated surfaces. Click here to read more.

In one of our western Kansas towns where there have been a relatively low number of cases, student-athletes were required to attend a meeting to view a video on concussions. During that meeting, those athletes were exposed to COVID-19. Click here to read more. As of August 17, an outbreak cluster has been confirmed at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, as students have returned to the private college campus.

And new ABC News report looked at problems across the country. They note that: 

“A community college in Mississippi told 300 of its students to quarantine after nine positive cases were confirmed, along with students in Gulfport and Corinth districts. Indiana schools were also hit with an estimated 500 students in quarantine across several districts, as administrators expressed concern that there would not be enough staff available to continue instruction.

‘Unfortunately, we are in a situation where parents seem to be sending their child/children to school even when they are symptomatic or possibly even when they, as parents, have been tested and are awaiting the results, later to find out they are positive,’ wrote Reece Mann, the superintendent of Delaware Community School Corporation in Muncie, Indiana, in an email to parents, according to The Associated Press.”

Those politicians demanding that all schools open now and open with all in-person instruction continually assert that the virus really does not impact children – that somehow children are more or less immune to the disease. Yet the facts tell a very different story.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released new guidance for pediatricians that explicitly says, “Recent evidence suggests that children likely have the same or higher viral loads in their nasopharynx compared with adults and that children can spread the virus effectively in households and camp settings.” In reporting on the new CDC guidance, CNN reports that “the new CDC guidance notes children can develop severe illness and complications, even if that risk is lower compared to adults. The rate of hospitalizations among children is increasing, the guidance says, and among those hospitalized, one in three children is admitted to intensive care — the same as adults.” Click here to read CNN’s story.

CBS News reports that 97,000 children became infected in the last two weeks of July alone according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. More than 338,000 children in total have been confirmed to be infected with the virus. Click here to read the CBS story.

All of the evidence points to one logical conclusion: The United States does not have the virus contained, and our failure to act is likely advancing its spread and impact. If it is safe to return to business as usual in our shops, restaurants, bars, and schools, why do Republican lawmakers – both in Congress and in the Kansas Legislature – demand the adoption of liability immunity for businesses should an employee or customer become infected at that business?

There is a way to get to reopening – that is to work harder to contain the spread of the virus. The scientific and medical communities have been very clear on how to do that. 1) Wear a mask; 2) practice social distancing; and 3) practice good hygiene by washing and disinfecting your hands. These three simple solutions are the three things that Kansas Republican leaders steadfastly refuse to enforce. “Kansans,” they say, “respond better to suggestions than mandates.” Sadly, that’s not true in this case. Not even Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman would follow that suggestion and wear a mask in a Statehouse meeting after having actually been hospitalized for COVID-19! But, Speaker Ryckman was able to secure a hospital bed and medical care, presumably thanks to those who are doing their part to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. The irony is not lost on us that Speaker Ryckman has led the battle in the Kansas House to block Medicaid expansion, denying healthcare to 150,000 working Kansans while he enjoys the choice to join the state healthcare plan at state expense (as all legislators do) or stick with his own private healthcare plan. We wonder where Speaker Ryckman would send the working poor when they need care as COVID-19 continues to spread.

When “personal liberty” means closed schools, shuttered businesses, and shattered lives

What the medical experts have told us repeatedly is that the best measures we can take to contain the spread of an airborne disease are to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Without a mask mandate, there can be no containment in a crowded bar, restaurant, concert hall, or school building. 

This has nothing to do with “personal freedom” or “liberty.” No one fights the store clerk who enforces the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” sign. We wear our seatbelts; it’s not a recommendation, it’s a law. We dutifully wrestle our small children into car seats because it’s a mandate. We mandate uncomfortable protective equipment for our athletes like helmets and pads. And please don’t tell us that school administrators cannot enforce a mask mandate. They have little trouble enforcing a “no spaghetti straps” dress code. They can also enforce a mask mandate. 

We all want our schools to be open to all students. We all want to return to restaurants and bars; we all want to go to concerts and gather for weddings. But the plain fact of the matter is that none of that is possible unless we ALL get serious about containing the spread of COVID-19. 

Kansans need to wear masks. Kansans need to practice social distancing. Recommendations are not working. Until each and everyone of us gets serious – or is forced to be serious through a mandate – none of us are safe. 

This should not be a political issue. It should not be a partisan issue. Sadly, Kansas Republican leaders have made it such for the sole purpose of undercutting a Democratic governor. When recent polling indicates two-thirds of Republicans support a national mandate for wearing masks indoors, it’s hard to believe Kansas Republican leaders have any other objective. As a result, more Kansans are getting sick and more Kansans are dying. 

In perhaps the most outrageous example of partisanship, it was recently revealed that Speaker Ryckman had been hospitalized for COVID-19, yet when he returned to the Statehouse after his hospitalization and self-isolation, he attended a meeting with Governor Kelly and other elected officials without wearing a mask. Additionally, he told only the Republicans that he had been infected, not his Democratic colleagues. 

And in a stunning comment about the situation Speaker Ryckman was quoted in the press as saying, “Until there is a better way to fight this infection, we must continue to look out for each other and all of the ways our state and our families are affected by this pandemic. This means protecting individual freedoms, re-opening our economy, and protecting the health of our communities.”  While Speaker Ryckman chooses whom he notifies and whom he doesn’t as he attends meetings with those at heightened risk, he suggests that anyone who would call “foul” on his reckless behavior is fear-mongering or shaming him. And, this is exactly the point: If we all take simple common-sense measures, we’re all at less risk and we’re all working together to keep one another safe regardless of what an individual chooses to share about his or her own health or infection status.

“Protecting individual freedoms” is the Republican argument for a no-mask mandate. “Re-opening our economy” is the argument that we can have no restrictions on gatherings. Both of these arguments will have the opposite effect on their third point, “protecting the health of our communities.” Without strict measures in place requiring compliance with efforts to contain the spread of this virus, we cannot expect to protect the health of our communities. We need not look any further than those school districts in Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, and to countless gatherings here in Kansas and across the nation. And please, Mr. Ryckman and Mr. Hawkins, if the Governor’s proposals won’t help contain the spread of this virus, give us your proposals that will. As it stands, after six months, your silence on substantive solutions is deafening.