Kansas public health bill targets mask mandates, quarantines and vaccines

The Kansas House voted Thursday night to advance a major rewrite of the state’s public health laws, largely inspired by the coronavirus, despite concerns from members of both parties that its provisions went too far.

The bill was crafted hours earlier after weeks of efforts, led by the Kansas Senate, to advance a legislative response to the government’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new legislation primarily targets mask mandates and quarantine orders. It also contains a watered down anti-vaccine provision. There is no provision for ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as off-label drugs.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told her colleagues at a House GOP caucus meeting that she accepted the bill in order to advance other laws.

“We don’t have the answers we should have in front of you tonight,” she said.

A bill to support the 988 suicide prevention hotline was approved at the same committee meeting as the public health bill. Some lawmakers had previously expressed concern that senators would block funding without budging on COVID-related legislation.

There are also rumors about the fate of other laws – including the fate of a plan to legalize sports betting in Kansas – which could also be linked to the public health bill, SB 34. It has was passed by the House 64-53, one more than necessary.

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Some lawmakers were particularly concerned that the bill largely applies to all infectious diseases, not just COVID-19. A recent outbreak of tuberculosis in Wyandotte County underscored this point.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, said while some members aren't happy with the public health bill, they understand there is a need to move other things around.

“There’s a bit of concern about what’s going on with different breakouts,” Landwehr said during the negotiations. “We just had a flare-up of TB. And if you’ve never had TB, that’s pretty ugly. So it wouldn’t protect other people.”

The KDHE reported the tuberculosis outbreak on March 30, which at the time had less than 10 cases.

A KDHE spokesperson said this week that contact tracing and testing shows the outbreak has spread within households already affected. The disease did not otherwise spread outside of these families. All patients respond well to treatment.

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Legislation restricts government mask mandates

No government agency or public official could mandate face masks to prevent the spread of any infectious disease.

An exception would be made for certain healthcare workers. The government could require hospital surgeons to wear masks when treating patients, for example nursing homes would not receive similar treatment.

“It’s all infectious diseases,” said Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison. “All respiratory infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, including streptococcus, including pneumococcus. You cannot force people to wear a face mask in certain situations, from the point of view of a government entity, for the wide range of acquired respiratory diseases.”

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On the House floor, members worried that the Kansas Department of Corrections could require masks in their prisons during an outbreak and others worried that it might even apply to healthcare or biomedical facilities.

“I hate masks personally, but in some events they have to be used,” said Rep. Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg.

Others played down potential pitfalls and recalled the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying something was needed to avoid a repeat of government-induced shutdowns and demands.

“When the government starts to infringe on individual rights, no matter how good the cause, no matter how good the reason, we are all diminished,” said Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth.

Proposal bans passports for COVID-19 vaccines

Governments would be prohibited from requiring passports for the COVID-19 vaccine or discriminating based on vaccination status. Medical facilities would again have an exception.

Another vaccine provision creates a requirement that when the KDHE adds a vaccine to the list of inoculations required to attend school, the vaccine must be FDA-approved. No such requirement currently exists, although all child welfare vaccines are FDA approved.

The provision targets COVID-19 vaccines, which have full FDA approval for adult use but remain under emergency use authorization in young children. State health officials and the governor have publicly stated that they have no plans to require COVID-19 vaccines for school children.

The bill does not contain language expanding the existing religious exemption to include moral and ethical beliefs, as religious conservatives had called for. Such a proposal would also prevent schools from questioning the sincerity of religious belief.

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Health workers will be limited in their quarantine capacities

A provision would remove the legal power of health officials to order law enforcement to help enforce a quarantine order. A separate farm bill authorizing similar orders for quarantine of livestock is unaffected.

“I’m really concerned about the whole thing about restricting the powers of the health and environment secretary,” Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, said during the talks. “Having to order law enforcement to help… does that mean if we have an outbreak of TB, that the secretary can’t enforce anything else with that for quarantines or isolation, the inoculation and vaccines that might be needed?”

“What kind of discussion has been made with the doctors about this, and with the health secretary?” asked Ruiz.

“Zero,” Hilderbrand replied.

Although no evidence has been presented that health officials are ordering law enforcement to help with quarantines during the pandemic, Hilderbrand said law enforcement requested the change because they “don’t want to be in that position”.

“Look at what’s happening in Shanghai,” he said. “I don’t think our state of Kansas should have the ability to do the same thing that’s happening to those poor people in Shanghai, and that would do that.”

“I’m somewhat offended to be compared to Shanghai because what’s happened in China is totally different from what’s happened in Kansas over the past two years,” said Sen. Pat Pettey, D. -Kansas City.

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No supply of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine included

Hilderbrand and Republican senators have pushed for a bill expanding childhood vaccine exemptions and greater authority for off-label prescriptions for COVID-19, but House negotiators have repeatedly rejected the legislation.

Off-label prescribing of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine has been a top priority for many conservative lawmakers, including Senator Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson. Reputable studies show that off-label drugs have no medical benefit in the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.

Steffen, an anesthesiologist, admitted to prescribing ivermectin and said he was being investigated by the healing arts board. The bill championed by Steffen would protect doctors from disciplinary action by the licensing board in connection with the pandemic while requiring pharmacists to fill prescriptions.

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Jason Tidd is a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.

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