GOP leaders: Kansas’ virus emergency might end March 31

TOPEKA, Kan. – Two top Republican lawmakers said Monday that Kansas might not need to keep its state of emergency for COVID-19 in place past the end of March, signaling possible internal GOP divisions about keeping the pandemic restrictions further into the spring.

The comments from Senate President Ty Masterson, of Andover, and Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, of Wichita, are significant because a law enacted last month keeps the current state of emergency in place only through March 31. Lawmakers plan to revise the emergency management laws that govern the state’s response to the pandemic and haven’t yet discussed how far they want to let Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly extend the current state of emergency.

The GOP leaders’ comments also came as lawmakers were wrestling with an issue arising out of the pandemic. Some prosecutors want to suspend a law that sets deadlines for criminal trials to protect defendants’ right to speedy trials, fearing that a backlog of pandemic-delayed cases could lead many to be dismissed.

Masterson said with COVID-19 vaccines “taking hold” and some immunity among the state’s 2.9 million residents, he could see the state of emergency ending. Suellentrop said Kansas still could see some spikes in cases but added that he believes the state is “reaching the tail end of this.”

“It won’t be over for a while,” Suellentrop said in an interview. “Will we get a handle on it? I think that in the next 45 days we certainly will have a much better handle on it.”

The state’s average number of new daily confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases has dropped in recent weeks to lows not seen since late October.

Kansas saw an average of 899 new cases a day for the seven days that ended Monday, according to state health department data. The department added 1,398 cases since Friday to its pandemic total of 282,960. That’s almost one case for every 10 Kansas residents.

The department also added 96 additional COVID-19 deaths since Friday, pushing its COVID-19 death toll to 4,197. While Kansas averaged a record 55 new deaths a day for the seven days that ended Monday, part of the surge was due to past deaths being recorded when birth certificates were filed weeks after people died.

The health department reported that 8% of the state’s population had been vaccinated as of Monday, with more than 233,000 people receiving at least the first of two required doses. Almost 304,000 doses had been administered, or 73% of the 413,000 doses sent to Kansas by the federal government.

“Hopefully, by the end of March, when the time tolls, we’ll have a reason to shut it (the state of emergency) down,” Masterson said.

The law extending the current state of emergency until March 31 also kept in place previous restrictions on Kelly’s authority. It allows the state’s 105 counties to opt out of a mask mandate she issued in November, as well as other health orders from her. And it prevents her from closing businesses statewide again, as she did last spring.

Kelly has said she wants lawmakers to rethink giving local officials control over pandemic restriction, arguing that a “patchwork approach” doesn’t work. But many Republicans want counties in control, and some of them want the Legislature, including its rank-and-file members, to have more say over the state’s response to a pandemic.

It’s not yet clear how many Republican lawmakers have embraced ending the state of emergency March 31. Kelly’s office did not immediately respond to Masterson’s and Suellentrop’s comments, but she and officials in her administration have said repeatedly that having it in place makes it easier to move resources around the state and tap federal funding to cover the state’s costs.

Also, vaccinating the general population is likely to take months, and public health officials worry that case numbers will rise again with the arrival last week of a more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

“I haven’t even thought that far ahead, to tell you the truth,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.

During the pandemic, Kansas district courts have not been required to abide by a law that generally requires criminal defendants to be brought to trial within six months of entering a plea or be released. But Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert’s authority to extend speedy trial deadlines would expire with the state of emergency.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill proposed by prosecutors to suspend the deadline for cases filed by May 1, 2024, so that courts can catch up on holding trials that have been delayed. During hearings last week, some senators and defense attorneys questioned the measure, and Chair Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said Monday that she’s asked both sides to draft a compromise.


St. Louis circuit attorney to investigate conditions at jail

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner on Monday launched an investigation into conditions at the City Justice Center, a large downtown jail that was the site of a massive disturbance over the weekend.

More than 100 detainees on Saturday were able to get out of their cells, smash windows and set fires. A corrections officer was injured and hospitalized but is expected to recover.

Advocates for inmates on Sunday said the uprising was “an act of courage” that was necessitated by inmates’ basic needs not being met, including a lack of personal protective equipment to help stave off a coronavirus outbreak.

Gardner, in a statement, called the weekend incident and other recent protests inside the jail “deeply troubling” and said her office’s investigation will focus on the circumstances that led to the actions.

“We will ensure there is full accountability,” Gardner said. “But while some are calling for the immediate prosecution of the detainees involved, this situation demands further scrutiny.”

She cited concerns raised by relatives of detainees, public defenders and advocates about conditions, “including whether or not appropriate protocols have been followed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Earlier Monday, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced the appointment of a task force to examine issues at the jail that has had three inmate uprisings since December.

Krewson’s office said the task force will be chaired by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Wolff, who also is a professor and dean emeritus at St. Louis University School of Law.

“The City takes very seriously the health and safety of the individuals who the courts have determined need to be held pretrial,” Krewson said in a statement. While officials believe the corrections division is being run in a “professional and capable” way, the concerns deserve investigation, she said.

An advocate for inmates, Tracy Stanton of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing St. Louis, said the inmates rioted in part because they lack adequate heat in cells and personal protective equipment to protect against COVID-19. The uprising “was an act of courage that was staged to reinforce these issues because their needs are still not being met,” Stanton said.

City officials say there are no positive cases among the general population, and that inmates are provided with adequate PPE and are tested upon request.

But activist Inez Bordeaux, of the legal aid group Arch City Defenders, said she’s taken calls on the organization’s jail hotline and heard from dozens of detainees who say they don’t have access to COVID-19 testing or PPE.


Resident death at El Dorado Correctional Facility


EL DORADO, Kan. – The KBI conducts a routine investigation into the death of a resident at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

Authorities say Jordan McClintick, 30, died Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. According to a release from the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC), the cause of death is pending an autopsy. They say a preliminary assessment indicates it’s not COVID-19-related.

Per protocol, when a resident dies in the custody of the KDOC, the death is under investigation by the KDOC and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

McClintock was serving a 130-month sentence for multiple convictions for Criminal Damage to Property in 2010, Possession of opiates in 2011 and 2015, Burglary in 2015, Theft in 2012, and Aggravated Battery in 2013.

El Dorado Correctional Facility is an all-male facility housing all custody levels with a current population of 1561 residents.


News to Know 2/8/2021

TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl 55 last night, beating last year’s champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. Legendary quarterback Tom Brady helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sail to a 31 to 9 Super Bowl Victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Brady won his fifth Super Bowl MVP award. Brady…who is 43…is the first player to win seven NFL championships.

COLUMBUS, Kan. – A Columbus kansas woman is dead following a wreck on Sunday. It happened at noon on Northwest Bethlehem Road about six miles west of K-7. 54-year-old Pamela White was traveling west when her vehicle went airborne while crossing rail road tracks. When it landed — police say it went off the road striking a tree. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – At a jail in St. Louis, inmates overtook an area inside the facility, busted out the windows and set items on fire. That’s according to the mayor’s office. This all began early Saturday morning when about 115 inmates managed to overtake an area of the fourth floor of the city justice center. The mayor’s office said a corrections officer was transported to a hospital after being attacked by the inmates. No word on the officer’s condition or any potential injuries to the inmates.

AFTON, Okla. – One trooper from Missouri and one from Olahoma, who were both injured in a police chase, are out of the hospital and home safe. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol says troopers chased a car on the Will Rogers Turnpike between Vinita and Afton Saturday night, and used stop sticks to stop the car. Authorities say the suspect got out and ran then circled back and stole an OHP trooper’s car. The suspect drove up the interstate into Missouri and hit a Missouri Highway patrol unit, injuring the trooper. At some point OHP trooper Micah Gibe left his vehicle, and Gibe was accidentally struck by a Missouri Highway patrol car.


Fake attendance scandal


ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The founder of a defunct St. Louis charter school has been sentenced to 366 days in prison and ordered to repay $2.4 million in state money he obtained by inflating student attendance numbers. Michael Malone, 44, was sentenced Friday for two counts of wire fraud for reporting incorrect attendance figures for the St. Louis Prep Charter School. He had pleaded guilty to those charges in August. Malone used the money to pay school expenses, and in the process he siphoned funding away from public schools. In his guilty plea, Malone said he inflated student attendance numbers by 10,044 hours in the 2016-2017 school year. The school closed in 2019.


Expensive hunting violations

WICHITA, Kan. – Three men avoided prison for hunting deer in areas of Fort Riley where explosives are discharged during training exercises, but they will each pay several thousand dollars in penalties.

The men will also be banned from hunting for three years while they are on probation.

The federal case involving several illegal hunts in 2018 and 2019 ended last week after the third man pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal trespassing charges as part of a deal with prosecutors.

As part of their guilty pleas, the men admitted crawling under a high-wire fence that was clearly marked “off-limits” to gain access to an area of the military base used for live-fire training.

Michael Smith of Watertown, N.Y. was ordered to pay $3,500 restitution and a $2,000 fine.

Gregory Frikken of Wamego, Kansas, was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and $3,500 restitution.

James Nunley of Wamego will have to pay $5,000 restitution and a $3,500 fine.


Oklahoma outbreak

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – The number of reported coronavirus cases in Oklahoma has surpassed 400,000 with 2,053 new cases reported by the state health department. The department on Saturday reported a total of 401,780 cases and an additional 51 deaths for a toll of 3,761 who have died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, since the pandemic began in March. Data from Johns Hopkins University shows Oklahoma was fourth in the nation in the number of new cases per capita with 855.55 new cases per 100,000 residents. The data shows the seven-day rolling average of deaths in the state fell during the past two weeks from 37.43 to 34.14 deaths per day.


Consulting firm helping Missouri identify “vaccine deserts”

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A consulting firm is helping Missouri identify “vaccine deserts” to try and make the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as equitable as possible, and attention now is focused on addressing areas within the two largest cities.

The Missouri Independent reports that Deloitte Consulting told a meeting of the Missouri Advisory Committee on Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution that the goal is to identify places where residents have little or no access to vaccines. Deloitte’s Andrew Miller says vaccine deserts remain concerning in parts of north St. Louis and the Interstate 435 corridor in Kansas City.


Kansas to give COVID-19 shots to inmates despite GOP protest

TOPEKA, Kan. – Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration plans to begin giving COVID-19 vaccinations to Kansas prison inmates next week, ignoring a call from the Republican-controlled Legislature to postpone their inoculations so that others can get them first.

Spokesperson Carol Pitts said in an email that the Department of Corrections has not yet vaccinated any inmates but would start giving them throughout its nine facilities. Her email Thursday came as the Kansas Senate was debating a resolution condemning Kelly’s decision to make inmates eligible for shots during the second phase of the state’s vaccine rollout, which launched last month.

The Senate approved the nonbinding resolution on a 28-8 vote, with all but one vote for it coming from its Republican majority. The measure calls on Kelly to abandon the policy involving inmates “without delay,” but the governor already had signaled her intent to disregard it with her public comments.

“You also have staff in prisons and you have people going in and out of prisons, and so we need to control the spread in our prisons to control the community spread,” Kelly told reporters Friday at a vaccination clinic for Kansas National Guard personnel.

Republican lawmakers have been at odds with Kelly for months over the state’s pandemic response, and they are likely to make what they view as mistakes with distributing vaccines an issue as she seeks a second term in 2022.

As of Friday, the state reported that about 218,000, or 7.5% of its 2.9 million residents, had received at least the first of two required COIVD-19 shots. More than 278,000 vaccine doses have been administered to Kansas residents, about 67% of the roughly 413,000 doses sent to Kansas by the federal government.

Kansas averaged 982 new confirmed or probable cases a day for the seven days ending Friday. The state health department added 2,647 cases since Wednesday to its pandemic total, bringing it to 281,562.

The total for COVID-19 deaths in Kansas jumped by 206 since Wednesday to 4,101, but state Department of Health and Environment spokesperson Kristi Zears said part of the increase occurred as death certificates for older and previously unreported fatalities were filed with the agency. The deaths included an unnamed 6-year-old in November, the youngest person in Kansas to die from COVID-19 so far.

Public health officials worry that cases, hospitalizations and deaths could rise because of the arrival of a new, more contagious variant first identified in the United Kingdom. The state confirmed its first case this week in Ellis County in northwest Kansas.

Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state health department, said it is now doing genetic testing on the coronavirus in about 30 cases a day to see whether they are tied to variants. He said the department is talking to Kansas State University and a Kansas City-area lab for more genetic testing.

Kelly and the health department are following the advice of public health officials and experts in vaccinating inmates in the second phase, along with people 65 and older, workers critical to the economy and others in group living situations.

“We have from the very beginning responded to this pandemic using the guidelines that are issued by public health experts,” Kelly said.

During Thursday’s debate in the Senate, Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, also suggested that refusing to give inmates priority could lead to a lawsuit against the state for housing them in substandard conditions.

But Republicans argued that it’s wrong for convicted criminals, particularly violent ones and sex offenders, to be in line ahead of tens of thousands of Kansas residents with medical conditions putting them at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Several GOP senators talked about family members who can’t yet get shots. Sen. Jeff Longbine, of Emporia, said his 21-year-old daughter, who has Type 1 diabetes, faces weeks more of being largely confined to her apartment.

“I am supposed to explain to my daughter that she can’t live a normal life, that she has to stay home and manage her blood sugar to the best of her ability, because we’re going to give vaccines to prisoners first?” Longbine said. “I’ve got a problem with that.”

The resolution was drafted by Senate health committee Chair Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, and he said he opted for a nonbinding “strong statement” from the Senate because a bill to overturn Kelly’s policy might not get through both chambers before all inmates got their shots – and the governor would likely veto it.

The resolution calls development of vaccines a “triumph of American ingenuity.” It also cited “the previous Presidential administration’s ability to accelerate and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19,” despite a rocky distribution rollout during the final weeks of former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, derided the debate as “political theater” and the resolution as “a political stunt.”

“It is a hit job on the governor,” he said.

Meanwhile, some people eligible for vaccines continue to resist getting them. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that about 70% of the 212 employees of the Corrections Department in Shawnee County declined COVID-19 shots or didn’t respond when offered them.


Sign urged for Thomas Jefferson statue on Missouri campus

COLUMBIA, Mo. – A task force is recommending that an explanatory sign be placed near a controversial statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Missouri campus. The sign would explain Jefferson’s accomplishments, but also note that he owned slaves and supported policies that led to the removal of indigenous people from their lands. Missouri System President Mun Choi appointed the task force after Black organizations and students pushed to have the statue removed in the midst of racial injustice protests last summer. University officials refused to have the sign removed. The task force’s recommendations have been sent to the Board of Curators for consideration,