COVID disaster spurs Gov. Laura Kelly to declare emergency as Kansas hospitals struggle

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  • Laura Kelly
    48th and current governor of Kansas
Gov. Laura Kelly speaks at a press conference where she announced a disaster declaration for Kansas as hospitals struggle to keep up with COVID-19 cases.
Gov. Laura Kelly speaks at a press conference where she announced a disaster declaration for Kansas as hospitals struggle to keep up with COVID-19 cases.

As hospitals warn of deteriorating conditions amid the latest spike in COVID-19, Gov. Laura Kelly issued Thursday a new disaster declaration in a bid to stem staffing crises at health care facilities statewide.

The new order, which will last for 15 days, won't carry with it any new mandates but is instead a response to pleas from hospitals for help amid a rise in cases not seen since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.

"This is an emergency that is important and that is why we are issuing these directives," Kelly said in a Statehouse news conference, adding her administration has been discussing possible steps with hospitals in recent weeks.

It was her first COVID-19 news conference at the Capitol since July.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Wednesday a rise of 15,000 cases since Monday. Figures show Dec. 30, 2021, had the most cases reported of any day since the start of the pandemic. More than 7,000 Kansans have died from the disease.

In addition, Kelly issued two executive orders designed to ease hospital woes. Health care workers are missing work by the hundreds with COVID-19 isolations and quarantines, meaning facilities have fewer staff members on hand to cope with a perilously high number of cases.

More: Shawnee County's new COVID cases nearly double. Commission to hear from health officer.

One executive order would relax licensing requirements for nurses and other staff members, as well as allowing National Guard and military personnel to volunteer in hospitals. The second is aimed at helping the 500 or so state-licensed adult care homes adequately staff up.

Both orders were in place earlier in the pandemic. Kelly added it was unlikely active National Guard members would be mobilized to support hospitals, as there are few guard members trained in medical fields who were not actively employed in a health care setting.

"That is why we're issuing these executive orders today, because we don't have these resources available through the guard," Kelly said.

The governor again encouraged residents to get vaccinated and boosted if they had not already done so. About 57% of Kansans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Her news release made no mention of face masks. Douglas County moved Wednesday to reimplement a mask mandate, starting Friday, but no other counties have followed suit.

Kansas had a COVID-19 emergency declaration in place for much of the pandemic until top Republican legislators allowed it to lapse in July over the objections of Kelly, a Democrat.

The governor didn't make an effort to renew the order during subsequent case spikes, however, and the governor's office and KDHE have taken few concrete steps in recent weeks to guard against the virus' spread or support hospitals.

Kelly told reporters in December that her administration is "doing everything that we possibly can to mitigate the damage that the virus is doing" but acknowledged more work was needed.

More: Kansas hospital officials warn they're rationing care and say worst is yet to come

Still, she played down the threat to hospitals at the time, even as facilities began delaying surgeries and other procedures.

"Those are not life and death surgical procedures," Kelly said on Dec. 17. "Those are elective procedures."

Kelly noted Thursday there was not a good understanding of the potential impacts the omicron variant of COVID-19 would have on hospital capacity.

"Once we figured it out, we got it together and are doing it now," she said.

Kansas hospitals struggle with COVID influx, delaying surgeries

But over a dozen Kansas hospital leaders made a rare statewide appeal Wednesday in a news conference, warning that hip replacements and cancer surgeries were being delayed to free up capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated.

"We are in crisis and it is shocking to me that people want to declare victory when we are in this," said Steve Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System.

Transferring patients to larger hospitals within the state has become basically impossible, officials said, with a five-fold increase in the number of individuals dying in emergency rooms, waiting for a bed to free up.

"I am sure most of you saw the press conference yesterday with a multitude of our health care professionals from all across the state," Kelly said. "This is an emergency."

She said the timing of her emergency declaration coming after the doctors called for one was a "coincidence."

"Actually, we've been having conversations with our hospitals ... we knew that it was very likely that we would have to do this," she said.

In a statement, Cindy Samuelson, a spokesperson for the Kansas Hospital Association, said Thursday's announcement was "welcome news."

Under legislation signed into law last year, top Republican legislators must sign off on any new COVID-19 disaster orders after 15 days.

More: New COVID variant has Kansas doctors afraid, hospitals full: 'My crystal ball is ugly'

Gov. Laura Kelly puts her mask back on after taking questions at a press conference Thursday at the Statehouse.
Gov. Laura Kelly puts her mask back on after taking questions at a press conference Thursday at the Statehouse.

Kelly said she had been in touch with legislative leaders about proposals to address hospital capacity issues. The intent was for the short-term order to last until the legislative session begins next week, at which point she would work with lawmakers to codify the policies into a law that would be in place through March.

"We'll keep these orders in place for 15 days as a stopgap until the Legislature can convene and send me a bill," she said.

In a text message, House Speaker Ron Ryckman appeared supportive of the new order but said lawmakers would be watchful for any additional mandates.

"We have been advised of the staffing shortages and increased hospitalizations that our healthcare system is currently facing and believe this order may provide some temporary and necessary relief and flexibility," Ryckman said.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, was more skeptical, saying in a statement, "I question the necessity of a new statewide disaster emergency" given the imminent return of lawmakers to Topeka.

"That said, the underlying executive orders to relax regulations that will assist our hospitals and long-term care facilities to address their staffing shortages are helpful," Masterson said.

Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kelly's likely opponent in the gubernatorial election this year, said lawmakers should "exercise strict oversight" over the governor's powers "to ensure her actions remain sensible, narrowly tailored and tightly limited."

"It is good the legislature reconvenes on Monday and will be in session to maintain a watchful eye," Schmidt said.

He did not indicate whether he supported the governor's actions.

Kelly said the surging coronavirus caseloads have been caused by holiday gatherings and the omicron variant.

"Numbers right now are bad, but there is reason for optimism," Kelly said, noting that while omicron is more contagious, the new variant tends to cause less severe disease.

"As omicron becomes the dominant strain, it will mean more COVID-19 infections, but over time, a significant reduction in hospitalizations and deaths," she said.

Stites, the KU doctor, warned last week that delta is still circulating and causing many hospitalizations. Additionally, "we have to be afraid" that omicron could ultimately lead to just as many hospitalizations due to the higher number of infected people.

"Don't get so darn confident and cocky about this being omicron," he said.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Gov. Laura Kelly COVID emergency declared for Kansas hospital staffing

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