TOPEKA — Sen. Mark Steffen on Monday described Kansas health officials as inadequate during the COVID-19 pandemic and accused them of willfully pursuing ineffective ways to slow the spread of the deadly disease.
Steffen, a Republican from Hutchinson, delivered a fiery speech at the end of a hearing on Senate Bill 6, legislation he introduced to strip state and county health officials of their authority to fight infectious diseases. He addressed his comments to opponents of the bill, including the state’s deputy secretary of health, a lobbyist for local health departments and a pediatrician.
“We talk about credibility,” Steffen said. “You all talk about this need to be able to prevent the spread of disease. You did not. You can not do this. Help me understand what part of this COVID response that your mandates, your quarantines, all of that has made a difference. You can’t show. You knew in advance it wasn’t going to work. You made it up as you went. You had no science. You have no science now. If I’m wrong, please stand up and show me your scientific studies that can prove to me that everything you did worked.
Steffen, an anesthetist under investigation for prescribing a discredited livestock deworming treatment to COVID-19 patients, continued his speech without giving anyone a chance to stand up.
“Your arrogance is astounding today,” Steffen said. “To stand up here and pretend we did something effective during that COVID response is ridiculous. But bring studies if you have them. If you don’t, you acknowledge your own inadequacy in public health. Recognize it. Admit it. Regain our trust. Now, you don’t have it and you certainly didn’t earn it today.
Kansas Governor Laura Kelly and state health officials ordered social distancing, quarantine and the wearing of masks during the first few months of the pandemic. The governor also closed schools for the last two months of the school year and ordered a statewide lockdown in April 2020, at a time when little was known about the virus and personal protective equipment was in short supply. Free, safe and effective vaccines became widely available a year later.
In response to questions for this story, former health secretary Lee Norman, who oversaw the state’s response to the pandemic, pointed to studies on ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, how lockdowns have saved lives and the effectiveness of vaccines.
“As a state, our doctors, nurses and other health care workers really rose to the occasion and did very well, considering there was no vaccine or treatment,” Norman said. “Public health measures were and are critically important and successful.”
State law more than a century old gives the state secretary of health, an appointed position and county health officials broad authority to impose restrictions in the interest of public health. Steffen’s law would have exposed that authority.
Under his proposal, health officials would simply issue recommendations. Teachers and school administrators would no longer be considered mandatory infectious disease reporters. Law enforcement officials should no longer enforce health orders.
The proposal has been supported by a dozen people, including those who deny the safety or effectiveness of masks and vaccines. They cheered Steffen’s closing remarks.
None of the supporters were licensed infectious disease physicians.
“Why have Kansas officials ignored high-quality expert medical advice and continued to enforce these ineffective policies that control the Kansas population and make Kansas children suffer horribly? This is indifferent tyranny,” said Festus Krebs III, whose license to practice medicine in Kansas expired in 1990, according to the Board of Healing Arts online database.
Nicole Vannicola, a woman on the Republican Eudora district committee, said her 10-year-old son hasn’t been able to wear a mask during the pandemic because he was struggling to breathe. As a result, she said, the doctor declined to see him for a medical condition that needed attention.
The doctor proposed an alternative solution, he said, in which he would attend to the child in his care in the parking lot, where the nurses could lift a sheet while the boy undressed.
“This was the best he could come up with to do no harm, for the oath he took,” said Vannicola. “These are the things that happen to people when we’re forced to follow these guidelines instead of being given the chance.”
Melissa Campbell told lawmakers she was entrusted by God to make decisions about her children and their livelihoods.
“I’m not a co-parent of government,” Campbell said.
Campbell also filed written testimony falsely claiming that “thousands of people die of sudden cardiac arrest” after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 2.2 million Kansans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. There are no verified vaccine-associated deaths in Kansas.
The virus, on the other hand, has killed at least 9,995 Kansan since it was first detected in the state three years ago, including 26 deaths reported between February 1 and February 8.
Greg Smith, a former state senator who now works at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to remove someone from their home during a public health emergency. But during questioning by D-Kansas City Sen. Pat Pettey acknowledged that the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office has never been tasked with executing a health order during the COVID-19 pandemic and was unaware of no law enforcement agency did that.
Ashley Goss, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said Steffen’s law would limit the state’s ability to trace the Ebola virus, even when someone entering Kansas has been exposed overseas, as well as the ability to treat patients with sexually transmitted diseases.
Dennis Kriesel, of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said current law allows people to challenge a public health policy in court if they believe they have been unfairly forced into isolation or quarantine.
“I would like to remind the committee that it is assumed that people also have the freedom to be free from disease by entering schools, by going out in public,” she said. “There are a number of Kansans who have exercised their right to religious and medical exemption from certain immunizations, allowing someone to ignore the recommendation, knowing they have measles, to expose others to it, endangering their life”.