President Joe Biden has a goal of 70% COVID-19 vaccination by July 4. Will Kansas be able to meet it?
The state's top health official said Wednesday his agency was "well-prepared" to pick up the slack on COVID-19 vaccinations now that Kansas' pandemic emergency declaration expired.
But Health Secretary Lee Norman told reporters on a conference call that the state's prospects for hitting President Joe Biden's goal of a 70% vaccination rate by July 4 appear to be dimming, although he underscored the state would be redoubling its efforts as the summer progresses and schools return to class in the fall.
As of Wednesday, Kansas Department of Health and Environment data showed 43.4% of the state's residents had received at least one vaccine dose, as demand for jabs has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
The first two weeks of April saw more than 227,000 individuals get at least their first vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first two weeks of June saw only 79,413 doses administered, by comparison.
"I think we're doing pretty well but, to be honest with you, I think we'll struggle to get to the 70% mark by July 4," Norman said.
Health officials plan workarounds with pandemic emergency order over
The Kelly administration and its Democratic allies in the Legislature have argued the move by Republicans to end the emergency declaration will make the vaccination task more difficult, with Kansas National Guard members no longer able to transfer or administer doses.
There are about 20 guard-supported events previously scheduled before the end of July, with KDHE and local agencies now set to pick up the slack.
The Kansas Department of Emergency Management has also been responsible for mobile clinics, a tool used with increasing frequency as the state moves away from mass vaccination events to a more nimble, targeted approach.
Republicans argue staffing levels in the state should have no problem supporting vaccination efforts without the emergency order in place.
"The remaining goal to make vaccines available to all Kansans who want them is one that our state can achieve without emergency measures and executive orders," House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said in a statement Tuesday.
But Norman said some issues would remain, particularly amid a record surge of personnel leaving local health departments. It is likely the state will rely more on contract nurses to administer vaccine doses, although demand remains high for those workers nationally.
And he added the need remains for an adequate number of school nurses when kids head back to class in the fall, with the guard no longer able to support vaccinations in that setting.
But the main challenge, Norman added, was logistics, with the guard unable to help move vaccine doses, test specimens and other items across the state. Kansas is aiming to stand up a courier service to handle some of these elements in the coming weeks to handle some of those items.
"A health agency typically doesn't run warehouses and doesn't tend to have trucks and truck drivers and those kinds of things that are required for distribution," he said. "It is a logistical matter. But I think we're in good step. ... Short of an acceleration in the number of cases, I think we're in good step to be able to do this."
Kansas aims to get vaccine doses into doctor's offices
One bit of good news for the state is a move from the Food and Drug Administration to extend the shelf life for millions of Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses.
A KDHE spokesperson last week said the state had roughly 56,000 J&J doses in inventory, which were previously set to expire in the "next couple of weeks."
Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, noted state officials had become more comfortable with doses potentially expiring or spoiling once they are sent to counties — as long as it means some individuals are getting vaccinated.
"Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of concern about wasting a single dose because demand was so high. ... The approach is different now," Kriesel said.
Previously, when the state sent doses to counties, it was in larger packages, with a hesitancy to send smaller numbers of doses. Now, officials say the state will break down those containers of Moderna and Pfizer shots, with the potential to ship individual vials of vaccine.
This is especially important for more remote counties, which often lack the capabilities to store the Pfizer vaccine — even though it is the only shot currently authorized for children 12 and older.
"If you're living in Overland Park and see drive-through (clinics) where you can get vaccines, maybe the perception is 'Oh they're out there, they're everywhere," said Kristie Clark, a family physician in Jetmore. "But for rural communities, it can be very hard."
And the state is making a more concerted effort to get doses to doctor's offices, with officials long believing physicians are best positioned to make the case for residents to get vaccinated.
Both the Kansas Association of Family Physicians and the Kansas Association of Pediatricians, are set to receive state-funded grants to help doctors jump through administrative hoops to get vaccine doses in their offices.
Physicians note they encounter vaccine hesitant individuals all the time — but often find they are able to win them over with persistence.
"We've got to get people in the offices and have the shots there," said Allen Greiner, medical officer for the Kansas City, Kansas, Wyandotte County Unified Government Health Department.
As the push for vaccinations continue, Norman and Gov. Laura Kelly say they are keeping close tabs on Missouri. A recent spike of cases in the Show-Me-State has seen some counties become full-blown hotspots, particularly in areas frequented by tourists.
Officials acknowledge the potential for spread to Kansas but hope the state's progress on vaccinations will make a dent on any risk to the state.
"I watch the numbers very closely to see where Kansas is and what, if anything, might be coming to get us again," Kelly told reporters Wednesday.