Gov. Laura Kelly to seek emergency order extension, despite GOP throwing down gauntlet

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly said Thursday she would seek a renewal of the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration, ideally pushing for an extension until August.

Republican legislators and Gov. Laura Kelly have engaged in a litany of bruising battles related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it appears at least one more is set to come.

Kelly said Thursday she would seek a renewal of the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration, despite a panel of Republican legislators saying last month that they were inclined to let the order run out when it expires on June 15.

Conservatives were already hesitant to renew the declaration during a May 28 meeting, arguing Kansans were ready to move on from the pandemic. But they relented in an attempt to let the state wind down its emergency operations, including the use of the Kansas National Guard to deliver supplies and help distribute vaccines.

Under legislation signed into law in March, Kelly no longer has a formal role in the decision over extending the order, with those powers instead resting in a committee made up predominantly of Republican legislators. That panel, the Legislative Coordinating Council, is set to meet next Tuesday if Kelly formally proposes an extension.

Still, Kelly told reporters Thursday that her administration would be seeking another renewal and, in an ideal world, that the order would extend until at least August.

"We're not ready yet," she said. "We've made a lot of strides on the virus and are getting to the point, but we're not there yet. This is not something you want to flip off with a switch, and this is a transition that needs to occur. We need some time to make that transition smooth."

Republicans have argued the last extension was, in effect, a way to allow for that transition. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, told reporters that he hadn't heard from Kelly's office on the matter.

He said he would be open to continuing the declaration if new evidence was presented but said a continuation could be a drag on the state's psyche.

"If for some reason they thought the sky was going to fall, they should probably let us know what the real issues are and we can make an informed decision, not just a political one," Ryckman said.

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Emergency declaration to continue orders, Kansas emergency operations center

Kelly's argument in favor of the declaration last month hinged on the continuation of several executive orders, including ones allowing for certain health care professionals to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine and a testing mandate for state-licensed adult care homes.

Adjutant General David Weishaar also argued the declaration was still needed to support the state's emergency operations center, which received about two dozen requests in May from local governments for first-aid supplies, gowns and masks.

And the guard has helped support vaccine distribution statewide, including a recent event at the Kansas Speedway and smaller efforts in more rural areas.

Local health departments haven't indicated that the guard's support would be a deal-breaker, and many areas have scaled back mass vaccination events as demand for jabs has slowed considerably.

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Health officials expected order to expire 

Health Secretary Lee Norman said earlier this week that there was an expectation the order would expire next week and that they were planning on the state's emergency operations center to end with it.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment support for contact tracing will continue, Norman said, and private contracts for nurses and other personnel would replace guard personnel.

"It should go on unabated, and I think we will be able to keep up with the demand for vaccines and testing for that matter," Norman said. "It should be relatively unseen by the public."

Kelly said there was a broader plan for phasing out the state's emergency response efforts but said it wouldn't be a quick one.

"We're continuing to work on that plan and continuing to execute that plan," she said. "But it is not something that will be done by Tuesday afternoon."