Will Kansas Republicans call a special session to take on COVID vaccine mandates? Legislators form panel.

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas legislative leaders, including Senate President Ty Masterson, middle, R-Andover, are forming a committee to consider actions regarding President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates. Other legislators are calling for a special session.

As some Republican legislators call for a special session to challenge President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates, legislative leadership are forming a committee to look into potential actions.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the "special committee on government overreach and the impact of COVID-19 mandates" will analyze "what it is that the state can or should do around some of the announced overreaches that we're anticipating."

Earlier this month, Biden announced vaccine mandate plans for federal workers, health care staff and large private employers across the country. The regulations haven't been finalized, making lawsuits and other challenges more difficult.

"We want to make sure that we do everything possible for our citizens of this state and make sure that these mandates, these overreaching mandates, can be handled lawfully," said Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe.

"I'm excited for this group," he said. "We get to work to find out what we can do to protect our citizens."

The Legislative Coordinating Council, comprised of top Republicans and Democrats, voted unanimously during a virtual meeting on Monday to form the committee. It will have 11 members who meet for up to five days.

"We need to check the federal government pretty hard and stop 'em. It's just completely out of control," said Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson.

More:Kansas Republicans challenge Joe Biden's COVID vaccine mandate. Can they really do anything to stop it?

Calls for special session

The formation of the committee comes as five Republican legislators are calling for a special session.

The letter, dated Sunday, was signed by Sens. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson; Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee; and Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood; and Reps. Trevor Jacobs, R-Fort Scott, and Tatum Lee, R-Ness City.

More:Science a 'weapon,' Kansas Sen. Mike Thompson says. Climate change experts fact-check him.

"Our constituents are demanding that their elected Representatives and Senators go back to Topeka for a special session for the purpose of nullifying President Biden's executive orders and passing additional legislation to protect the individual liberties of Kansans and ensure that Kansans aren't being forced to take vaccines or to wear masks," the group of five wrote.

Masterson said there is "lots of energy in the constituent base" in opposition to vaccine mandates. He said Monday's meeting to form a committee wasn't a reaction to the letter.

"This meeting is not in response to anything some of our individual members have done or are doing," he said. "But I understand, where they were some new members that are energetic, and they need to understand, I mean, and I think there's a little bit of lack of understanding process."

Masterson said a special session would require committee hearings anyway, so calling a special session first would ultimately mean legislators sitting around waiting for a committee to meet. A special session would cost about $65,000 a day, so the committee is intended to figure out a plan before going forward with a special session.

The group of five legislators say they have already crafted legislation — "a Patriots' Freedom Bill" — that would be ready for their proposed special session start date of Oct. 18.

Calling a special session would be exceedingly difficult. Without the backing of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, Republicans would need support from a two-thirds majority of both chambers.

Legislative staff were previously instructed to look into available options, but the new committee will be more transparent with the ability to take public comment and testimony, Masterson said.

"This is the ball that would roll, and we can have it rolling faster than going through a special session process before we know what that needs to be and save us money," he said.

Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said there may be additional short-term actions to challenge vaccine mandates in the meantime. His suggestions were blocking money from being used to enforce mandates and offering legislative staff to assist the attorney general's office with any potential legal challenge.

"We should look at that," Masterson replied.

Kansas surpasses 6,000 COVID-19 deaths

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Monday that the state's COVID-19 death count has reached 6,024 people. Kelly ordered flags to half-staff effective immediately through sundown Wednesday.

"It is with great sadness that, for the 6th time since the pandemic began, I am ordering flags to half-staff to honor the lives and memories of another 1,000 Kansans who have died from COVID-19," Kelly said in a statement. "We have the tools to stop the virus in its tracks and prevent further unnecessary deaths of our loved ones and neighbors. I urge all Kansans to get vaccinated, wear masks, and follow best health practices."

During the legislative meeting earlier in the morning, Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said she is concerned the committee won't address solutions to ending the pandemic.

"We've had 6,000 deaths in Kansas because of COVID," she said. "I just don't want this committee to politicize this anymore, we need to have solutions. How do we get out of this and stop having a political debate on this, but how do we actually protect Kansas, keep our economy growing?"

"Appreciate that," Masterson replied. "Bad news is I don't think we can make it more political than the Biden administration has made it. I'm with you on solutions."

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, suggested broadening the scope of the committee to include looking for solutions. He said there could be state-level steps to encourage vaccinations and the following of CDC guidance.

"I don't think we should just look at just what the federal government's doing and respond to that," Sawyer said. "I think we ought to be looking at maybe things we can be doing to help our people ... from getting a disease and getting sick."

Masterson agreed there is a "local government aspect as well" to the issue. He and Ryckman have the authority to establish the scope of the committee.

The backers of a special session are critical of mandates at all levels of government.

"From the White House to the County Courthouse, we are witnessing mandates to vaccinate, mandates for masks, and now we are personally watching our friends, families and neighbors losing their jobs because they choose personal liberty," they wrote in their letter.

Hospital staffing challenges

Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield, apparently took aim at vaccine mandates for health care workers.

"One of the things that we got to make sure we do is make sure that our health care workers can go back to work and be in the hospitals and man those beds, because right now that's where our problem is, half of our problem is that the people aren't able to go back to work," he said. "So we want to make sure our nurses and our doctors can get back to work. And that's what this is all about.

While Biden has promised vaccine mandates for health care workers, many hospitals are implementing their own.

At Stormont Vail in Topeka, CEO Robert Kenagy has said the ongoing staffing shortage isn't due to the hospital's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Rather, he said, "The vast majority of our shortages are the result of nursing staff leaving for travel nursing positions, retirements and illness of team members or family members." The hospital and clinics had more than 250 job openings when he made that statement.

Masterson previously led an unsuccessful attempt to block hospitals with vaccine mandates from sharing in a $50 million pool of money for nurse bonuses.

Steve Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, was critical of the anti-vaccine-mandate idea from politicians.

"Let me stay in my lane, but, by God, you stay in your lane," Stites said. "And don't be coming into my lane telling us how to run our hospitals because what you're really suggesting is we're willing to support you if you're willing to let your hospital staff be at risk, and that puts patients at risk.

"That just doesn't add up and that just creates that whole mentality that vaccination is bad and masks are bad and you all are bad."

The KU hospital in Kansas City has had its own challenges with staffing. Earlier this month, officials said that 15 respiratory therapists quit within three weeks because of "exhaustion and frustration" with the latest COVID-19 surge.

Doctors have warned that further worsening of the pandemic could overburden hospitals, especially smaller facilities in rural areas. Rationing of health care could become a reality.

More:Could COVID force rural Kansas hospitals to ration care? Doctor warns of what patient surge could mean.

"It would only take two or three more patients to come in and overwhelm us, with COVID that need oxygen at a high flow, that all of a sudden you're picking and choosing who gets to be on these machines and who doesn't," Abilene physician Brian Holmes said earlier this month. "We don't want to be in that position, we want to be able to treat everybody the same and give them the best care we possibly can.

"That's my biggest fear when I think about trying to take care of our community."

Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Andrew Bahl contributed reporting.