By Tim Carpenter – Kansas Reflector
TOPEKA — U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran met with military veterans Monday at Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center on a mission to gather intelligence on ways of speeding COVID-19 vaccination of thousands of former soldiers, sailors and airmen.
The objective was to make a boots-on-the-ground assessment of supply and logistic obstacles to distributing vaccine at Veterans Administration facilities in Topeka, Leavenworth, Wichita and elsewhere ahead of a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday on the subject in Washington, D.C. Complications with distribution remain, he said, but headway has been made. Vaccine supply is a major issue, he said. And, the senator said, an estimated 30% of veterans have not yet expressed eagerness to be part of the national vaccination campaign due to anti-vaccination sentiment or lingering questions about efficacy of drugs.
“I wanted to have a better feel of what’s taking place in Kansas in regards to getting a shot in the arm for those who served our country,” the Kansas Republican senator said. “It is pleasing to me to see the efforts that are underway to make sure veterans who are willing to be vaccinated get that opportunity.”
Moran said folks he spoke to a Colmery-O’Neil about vaccinations said their justification was to once gain be able to visit grandchildren or take trips. There is an obvious desire to get back to something that approximates normal, he said.
Rudy Klopfer, director and chief executive officer of the VA’s Eastern Kansas Health Care System, said during a news conference in a Topeka vaccination center the theme of the drive was to “reclaim the summer.” About 6,000 veterans and VA employees have been vaccinated in the region, he said. A system of personal telephone calls and robocalls has been deployed to persuade veterans to schedule a vaccination, he said.
“My expectation for my staff is whenever we get that vaccine for the week, we use it up that week,” Klopfer said.
Moran said he was optimistic 70% of veterans in the VA region could be vaccinated by summer. There are, of course, a portion of the population that wants nothing to do with a COVID-19 vaccine. The major impediment at the moment is with vaccine supply, but the senator said distribution and scheduling had improved in the past couple months. In Kansas, he said, there was frustration with recordkeeping that so far doesn’t show an appropriate level of vaccinations.
“It bothers me that Kansas has been on a low scale in that list,” Moran said. “What we need is more vaccine. More supply. Better logistics. Accurate recordkeeping. Encouragement of people to actively get vaccinated.”
He said he welcomed the U.S. Small Business Administration’s decision to make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program to reach out to smaller, minority-owned firms and sole proprietors. These businesses were shoved out of the way by big businesses and big bankers in earlier rounds of PPP, which provide forgivable loans to companies if the money is used to keep people employed. The program is valuable but has proven insufficient given the number of businesses falling through the cracks, the senator said.
The $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package under development in the U.S. House shouldn’t reward city, county or state governments that made back financial decisions before the pandemic, Moran said. Aid for local government needs to be tied to law enforcement, public health or related activities essential to the COVID-19 response, he said.
“I think there’s a way to fashion this … so Kansas taxpayers are protected yet we’re still responding to needs of local units of government,” Moran said.
He recommended the next COVID-19 package not increase the supplemental federal jobless benefit from $300 per week to $400 per week, because the complexity of changing that number could cause further delays in delivering checks to the unemployed.
He also said the No. 1 complaint received by his Senate offices was about the Kansas Department of Labor’s ability to process and deliver unemployment benefits to Kansas. There is too much attempted fraud and some people have been left hanging too long by the labor department, he said.
“I received a notice that I had applied for unemployment insurance. I’m not,” Moran said. “There are a lot of Kansans who are struggling to get their unemployment benefits.”
Gov. Laura Kelly said new steps were to be taken Monday to address data reporting issues that inaccurately identified the number of individuals vaccinated for COVID-19 in Kansas. The state will implement a series of policies in partnership with health care providers to help solve the vaccine administration gap, she said.
The governor’s office said reported vaccine administration rates in Kansas have been lower than expected, despite qualitative reports of vaccines being administered quickly by health care providers. The gap in reporting is due to reporting inconsistencies and time lags between the state’s KS WebIZ immunization registry and the federal registry known as CDC Vaccine Finder.
“We want Kansans to have confidence that we are vaccinating at-risk Kansans as quickly as possible, and despite data lags, health care providers are administering all doses of vaccine to those who need them most,” Kelly said. “To fix these issues, we are working with local health departments and providers to urgently address the problem. The new processes we are implementing will allow us to spend more time and energy on getting vaccines in Kansans’ arms.”
Providers will be required by the state to report data daily on doses received, administered, in inventory and transferred. This information will give the Kansas Department of Health and Environment a clear view of where vaccines had been administered and help identify reporting shortcomings.