by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
April 29, 2023
TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature narrowly passed a bill forbidding state and county public health officials from issuing test, isolation and closure mandates to counter spread of infectious disease and blocking the state from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of children in schools or daycare facilities.
The measure was sent Friday to Gov. Laura Kelly on the final day of the 2023 legislative session despite bipartisan opposition. The bill also would require the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to conduct a study of overdose deaths in Kansas with an emphasis on the role of fentanyl poisoning.
Proponents seeking to restraint authority of public health officials argued personal liberty interests should supersede government action on behalf of the overall population. Supporters bristled at appointed health professionals directing disease response rather than relying on elected officials with authority derived from voters.
“Really, this bill is very simple,” said Rep. Will Carpenter, a Republican from El Dorado. “It’s about accountability to elected officials. It’s about personal responsibility and personal freedom.”
Skeptics characterized the bill’s limitations as a dangerous and politically motivated response to the COVID-19 pandemic. KDHE says the virus contributed to the death of more than 10,000 people in Kansas.
Sen. Kristin O’Shea, R-Topeka, said she couldn’t understand why a majority in the Legislature was willing to view the act of knowingly infecting people with a potentially deadly illness such as COVID-19 as less of an offense than knowingly exposing an animal to infection. As an example, she said Kansas considered it a crime to make chickens sick in a bid to inflate egg prices.
“How do you justify legislation that would result in our statute putting a higher value on the price of eggs than the life and health of its citizens?” O’Shea said.
Following lengthy debates, the bill emerged with little wiggle room from the Senate on a vote of 22-18 and the House at 63-56.
Just do something
Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican and one of the GOP negotiators on the bill, said constituents demanded the Legislature restraint government ahead of the next public health calamity. She said constituents who survived COVID-19 complained temporary closure of businesses culminated with many never reopening. She said others objected to closing public K-12 school buildings and moving students to an online model, which set children back academically.
“We heard from our constituents: Has anything been done about that? Could this happen again?” Gossage said.
Under House Bill 2285, authority of health officers to prohibit “public gatherings” in response to spread of contagious disease would evaporate. KDHE secretaries could not direct people to undergo testing, evaluation, treatment or quarantine if exposed to infectious disease.
KDHE secretaries and local health officials could no longer issue formal orders in response to health emergencies, but could make recommendations intended to slow spread of disease.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, a Republican from Emporia, said the bill presented to legislators by House and Senate negotiators included a bizarre provision requiring KDHE to submit rules and regulations for dealing with infectious disease directly to the Kansas House speaker and Kansas Senate president.
He said the bill contained contradictory language on how public health officials would handle disease outbreaks.
“I think this conference committee report will cause huge havoc in public health,” Longbine said. “It is confusing to employers and is not great public policy.”
Under the bill, the KDHE secretary would be limited to making suggestions about how to prevent introduction or spread of disease among physicians and nurses, people working in clinical or forensic laboratories, emergency medical services, firefighting, law enforcement, correctional facilities and any individual with an occupation in which a person could be exposed to blood or infectious material.
No longer would law enforcement officers be expected to enforce compliance with infectious disease rules or regulations. The legislation also would forbid public or private employers from dismissing an employ because the person for following isolation recommendations of health officers.
Longbine said he was concerned some legislators didn’t understand the gravity of adopting a bill designed to erode the state’s health system.
He said his father died at age 63 after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapidly progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disorder sometimes referred to as mad cow disease.
“There are diseases out there that need to be controlled — that have to be controlled,” said Longbine, who argued health freedom of one person shouldn’t mean other people had to be exposed to lethal illnesses.
Can’t control disease
Shawnee GOP Sen. Mike Thompson said people convinced public health officials or “anyone can control a disease, you don’t understand science.” He said the Legislature was forced to act because of flawed local, state and federal decisions made in response to COVID-19.
Unelected health agency employees at the state or local levels shouldn’t be allowed to force people to comply with government overreach that usurped individual liberty, Thompson said. Government’s role was to attempt to educate people about options and get out of the way, he said.
“The farther we get away from COVID, the more our memories fade about what actually happened,” Thompson said. “If we wait too long some future Legislature is going to have to deal with this again. We will have to relearn the lessons.”
Rep. Pat Proctor, the Leavenworth Republican, said Kansans endured three years of abuse as bureaucrats made decisions about COVID-19 without proper checks and balances. He said health officials sought to politicize the pandemic, even when those decisions ran the state’s economy off a cliff.
“It seemed the more people objected to the nonsensical rules the more unelected bureaucrats doubled down,” Proctor said. “Our Constitution does not get suspended because people are scared. Our Constitution, our inalienable rights, are given to us by God, not by government. They don’t get suspended because of an emergency.”
A knee-jerk response
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, rattled off a series of questions she said GOP advocates of the bill couldn’t answer. She said the legislation was far from simple and proposed development of solid public health law ought to be taken up during the 2024 session.
“Our Founding Fathers did not rush to make the decisions that did give us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We should do the same on this,” she said. “Let’s truly stand up for freedom, but let’s do it the right way.”
John Eplee, a physician and an Atchison Republican in the House, said the bill was a mistake. He said it was a political reflection of anger felt by some Kansans who believed health officials came down on them in a negative way during the pandemic.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction to what we’ve just lived through,” he said. “We’re still trying to recover from what happened during the pandemic. I understand that we had restaurants that closed and they’ll never come back, but who’s to say that not even more would have closed if we hadn’t had isolation, we hadn’t had shutdowns.”
He said implementation of the bill was an attempt to dismantle the vision of public health that had endured throughout his career in medicine.
Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, D-Lenexa, agreed removing authority of health experts to devise a response to spread of horrible diseases was short-sighted and dangerous.
“If a plane arrives to Kansas and they realize somebody tested positive on that plane, there would be no authority to make sure those folks are tested before they go back into our communities,” Hoye said.
She said a likely consequence of the legislation would be to discourage Kansans from getting vaccinations for COVID-19 and preventable diseases.
“I don’t think we should be putting ourselves out and trying to make people afraid to get vaccines that could save their lives,” she said.
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