TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas is working through the details of exactly who will be eligible for coronavirus vaccines in exactly what order as it concentrates on giving shots mostly to health care workers this month.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly told leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature this week that the vaccines have gone mostly to health care workers, though that group also includes employees in state prisons. She said vaccines could go “almost exclusively” to health care workers into mid-January but also suggested some doses already have reached nursing homes.
Kelly told The Topeka Capital-Journal in an interview that prison inmates are to get vaccinated before the general public because they’re in “congregate” housing, but the state doesn’t expect vaccines to be available for some adults for at least several months.
The state’s vaccine plan made health care workers and nursing home workers and residents the the first in line, followed by other “essential” workers and people 75 or older, particularly those at high risk of coronavirus complications. But Kelly said in an Associated Press interview that the state is considering vaccinations for some officials to preserve “continuity of operations.”
“We expect that sometime right after the first of the year, we will have a more definitive list of who will be vaccinated when,” Kelly told legislative leaders during a meeting Wednesday.
Kansas has reported nearly 210,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since the pandemic began in early March through Wednesday, or one for every 14 of its 2.9 million residents. It has reported more than 2,500 deaths, or one for every 1,162 residents.
Kelly’s staff has repeatedly said that she will get vaccinated — in public — when it’s “her turn.” However her husband, a retired pulmonologist and sleep disorder specialist, is working part-time in a clinic screening patients for COVID-19 and other diseases before surgeries and was vaccinated Tuesday.
And the governor said the state is looking at how quickly some key officials in state agencies, the courts and the Legislature should get vaccinated.
“We’re looking at that right now, determining who ought to be vaccinated soon,” Kelly told The Associated Press. “We’ll make that decision pretty quickly.”
The state prison system — housing about 8,600 inmates — has reported nearly 5,200 cases among offenders and another 944 cases among staff. Four workers and a dozen inmates have died.
The latest staff death was reported Wednesday by the El Dorado Correctional Facility. The prison about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Wichita described Gabe Morales as a “wonderful asset.”
Morales began his career in the state prison system at the Winfield Correctional Facility in May 2014 and moved to the El Dorado prison in July 2015. Part of Morales’s job was to prepare inmates for life after their sentences ended.
He told KAKE-TV for a story last year that, “It’s not about the person they are when they came in, you really want to affect them, so they’re a better person when they go out.”
Prison staff members who worked in units for inmates with COVID-19 began receiving vaccines last week.
The state’s vaccination plan calls for giving shots to “critical” populations after essential workers and at-risk older Kansans but does not specifically spell out whether prison inmates are in that group. Kelly said inmates will get shots when the state gives them to people in “congregate” living such as state hospitals.
That’s likely to spark some political backlash.
“There is no reason prisoners should ever get this vaccine before law abiding Kansans,” The Kansas Republican Party tweeted.
But Kelly told The Capital-Journal: “There are all sorts of other people who were not convicted of a crime who work in those facilities, and vaccinations protect them, too.”
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Environment reported that as of Wednesday, nursing homes had seen 530 clusters of two more cases, accounting for nearly 10,500 cases and almost 1,100 COVID-19 deaths — almost 44% of all the state’s coronavirus deaths. The department listed 51 active clusters of five or more cases in nursing homes, accounting for nearly 600 cases in all.
Vaccines for nursing home workers and residents are to be given on site, mostly through pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens. Both have indicated that shots could start in Kansas next week.
Kelly has been “outspoken” in making sure frail, elderly Kansans are near the top of the list for the vaccine, said Linda MowBray, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Care Association, which represents about 260 long-term care facilities. But she said had hoped the vaccines would come sooner to the homes.
“When somebody says you’re tier one, priority one, right up there with everybody else, or the health care workers, it’s a little bit disheartening that it’s not really first of the first,” she said.