TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Kansas will give priority to vaccinating teachers and other school workers against COVID-19 so that K-12 students across the state can resume face-to-face classes as soon as possible, Governor Laura Kelly said Wednesday.
The Democratic governor’s announcement came a week after she told leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature that 60% of the state’s 286 school districts had started vaccinating teachers. The state’s public schools have approximately 72,000 employees, including 34,000 certified teachers.
Kelly said the state will be able to vaccinate school staff because it expects the federal government to start shipping an additional 25,000 doses of vaccine a week next week. She said the federal government has promised Kansas a total of 115,000 doses per week.
The governor also said the state will provide fast-reacting COVID-19 tests to schools as well.
“We want our kids to be back in the classroom,” Kelly said during a press conference at the Statehouse. “We all know that the virtual school is not ideal.”
In mid-March 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit Kansas, Kelly ordered the K-12 school building to close until the end of the spring semester, and she continues to argue that there is a need to review the spread of COVID-19. The Republican legislature, however, heavily criticized that the action was too drastic and impaired the children’s learning.
Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, tabled a bill last week that would require the state’s K-12 schools to offer in-person tuition to all students starting March 26. Kelly is hoping we can get some of them back sooner that. “
“Some schools have started,” she said. “Some counties have already started to focus on teachers and staff in schools to bring children back. We all know this wasn’t a good situation. “
Kelly’s announcement came a day after the Kansas National Association, the state’s largest teachers union, invited hundreds of teacher leaders to a Zoom panel discussion where health professionals discussed the importance of COVID-19 vaccines. Marcus Baltzell, a union spokesman, said at least half of the state’s school districts, and possibly more than two-thirds, still teach distance learning at least part-time.
“We support the governor’s efforts to provide vaccines to educators because we know this will help them return to safe face-to-face teaching, according to the medical experts,” he said.
But Kelly announced the focus on teachers and school staff after a winter cold snap resulted in power outages, disrupted vaccine deliveries, canceled some vaccination clinics, and reduced the number of people tested.
Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said vaccine deliveries, due to run out earlier this week, were again delayed Wednesday. He said state health officials hope most facilities will get their weekly allotment by Friday.
Several communities, including some in the Topeka area and Kansas City, canceled vaccination clinics and tested on Tuesday as temperatures dropped below zero and snow fell.
The tests had already dropped before the cold snap. State Department of Health data showed that most people were tested in November, nearly 186,000 or 6188 a day, and then it dropped to 182,000 or 5,873 a day in December – possibly due to the holidays – and then it was less than 139,000 in January or December 4468 per day.
The lower number of tests coincided with a decrease in the number of positive tests. Kansas added just 1,267 new confirmed cases Monday through Wednesday, bringing the state’s pandemic to 288,717. That took the state’s seven-day rolling average to 546 new COVID-19 cases per day, the lowest since mid-September. The number of COVID-19 deaths also rose 115 to 4,521.
But the number of hospitalizations and the positivity rate have also decreased, leading health authorities to believe that the situation is actually improving.
In Wichita, after 15 weeks of full intensive care units, the two major hospitals now have beds available in their intensive care units, the Sedgwick County Health Department said.
There’s also space in hospitals in the Kansas City area, Elizabeth Holzschuh, an epidemiologist with the Johnson County Health Department, said during a conference call Tuesday.
Dr. Dana Hawkinson, director of infection control at the University of Kansas Health System, said the introduction of vaccination will help reduce infections – especially among nursing home residents – but does not fully explain the decline. He said it was more the result of better masking, adding that recent winter weather had also resulted in a “natural shutdown”.
Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health Systems, said during a daily webcast that the cold snap had forced people indoors.
“You’re staying in your bladder because you want to stay warm,” he said. “We’ll take that.”
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.
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