Governor Laura Kelly on Friday signed a bill codifying the COVID-19 emergency measures she established two weeks ago in a disaster declaration.
Hospitals and nursing homes will now receive temporary regulatory relief designed to ease staffing issues. The measures expire in January 2023.
“The Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly across the state, affecting our healthcare and long-term care facilities,” Kelly said in a statement. “By signing this bipartisan bill, we can better respond to the staffing shortages our healthcare system is facing at this critical time in the fight against COVID-19.”
Kelly also deployed the Kansas National Guard on Friday to assist with COVID-19 testing. The 80 non-medical soldiers and airmen will support KDHE test sites and help provide personal protective equipment. Guard military medical professionals already in medical positions will remain in their communities.
The governor also announced that federal Veterans Affairs facilities will provide limited temporary care to ease pressure on hospitals. The VA will take some ineligible patients to acute care and intensive care beds until February 17.
“We are at an inflection point with the Omicron variant, and the strain on our hospitals is putting a strain on our healthcare workers and patients – while continuing to rapidly spread the virus in our communities,” Kelly said in a statement. Press. “The majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated. Please do your part by getting vaccinated and boosting yourself today.”
The emergency staffing bill, House Bill 2477, received support from various health care lobbyists and passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority.
The bill’s regulatory relief would “go a long way to helping developers staff their facilities and provide needed services to Kansans,” said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka.
“It’s something minimal that we can do,” said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs.
The governor said while the new law is key to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, it won’t solve all the problems hospitals are facing.
“This bill authorizes physician assistants and advanced practice nurses to order the collection of throat swabs for COVID-19, reducing the need for a doctor’s order to perform these tests,” said Kelly at a bill signing ceremony. “It allows nurses with inactive or expired exempt licenses to provide medical services appropriate to their education, training and experience, significantly increasing the staff available for patient care.
“It allows both students enrolled in programs to become medical professionals and emergency medical personnel serving in the military to volunteer in health care facilities and nursing homes. It allows also to medical professionals licensed in other jurisdictions to practice in Kansas.”
According to reports from the Kansas Hospital Association, hospitalizations related to COVID-19 are higher now than during any previous outbreak of the pandemic. The latest wave of the omicron variant has particularly affected children.
“Unfortunately, we think the reality is that our hospitalizations probably haven’t peaked yet,” Tara Mays, a lobbyist with the Kansas Hospital Association, told lawmakers.
Rates of coronavirus cases continue to climb, according to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. From Wednesday to Friday, KDHE recorded 20,806 new cases of COVID-19, 92 new hospitalizations and 29 new deaths.
Federal data shows Kansas had the ninth highest rate of new cases per capita in the nation over the past week. More than 2% of the state’s entire population has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past seven days. Nearly a third of all tests came back positive.
“We are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 cases statewide, causing staffing shortages and hospitals to reach capacity,” KDHE Acting Secretary Janet Stanek said in a statement.
She said the Guard will help provide needed manpower with the increased demand for COVID-19 testing, while the VA is accepting transfers from Kansas hospitals.
Hospital chiefs have warned that rationed care could be the state’s future, particularly if masking compliance and vaccination rates remain low.
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Anti-vax amendment fails
The bill hit a long snag in the Senate when Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson and an anesthesiologist, proposed an amendment that would have prohibited most healthcare workers from refusing to treat or discriminating against unvaccinated patients.
Doctors and nurses could have had their licenses suspended if they broke the law.
He said he has heard of several cases where doctors’ offices in Kansas refused to see patients who had not been immunized against COVID-19. In one case, the patient turned to Steffen to fill a prescription, he said.
“She went to her family doctor for 20 years and told that doctor that she was not vaccinated and was summarily escorted out of the building,” Steffen said. “She was out of blood pressure medication.”
His proposal failed in a 17-19 vote.
Steffen was among a group of Republican senators who introduced an anti-vax bill during the November special session on vaccination mandates. The bill targeted various public health measures for all infectious diseases — none of the provisions were specific to COVID-19.
The emergency staffing bill was fast-tracked by the Legislative Assembly after it was called on Jan. 10 due to a 15-day limit on executive orders. Kelly, a Democrat, issued the emergency declaration on Jan. 6, meaning the provisions would have expired on Friday without legislative action.
“We will keep these orders in place for 15 days as a stopgap measure until the Legislative Assembly can meet and send me a bill,” she said.
At the time, Senate Speaker Ty Masterson, R-Andover, questioned “the need for a new statewide disaster emergency” given the imminent return of lawmakers to Topeka . Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt and the gubernatorial candidate called on lawmakers to “exercise tight control” over the governor’s powers.
Following:COVID disaster prompts Governor Laura Kelly to declare emergency as Kansas hospitals struggle
Steffen also argued that “the only thing worse than no care is bad care.”
Lawmakers originally planned to end the emergency provisions in May, but they will now expire in January 2023. They are granting certain people, including those with less formal training and pensioners, the power to help in some health care institutions.
“We have a grave obligation, a great obligation, to make sure that once this is passed, we keep track of health outcomes or quality of care from now on,” Hilderbrand said.
Kelly previously told reporters that lesser care is better than no care.
“Right now we have a problem because of the lack of staff,” she said. “So is it ideal? No. But it’s better than what’s happening where people aren’t being treated.”