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TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s says Kansas won’t enforce a federal mandate that nursing home workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, acknowledging Wednesday that it conflicts with an antimandate state law she signed 4 months ago.
Nursing home workers must still get vaccines, but the federal government will charge Kansas nearly $349,000 a year to have federal teams survey nursing homes for compliance.
Kelly announced the policy this week with conservative Republican legislators pushing to limit the restrictions that state and local officials can impose during future outbreaks and to weaken vaccination requirements for children enrolling in school and day care. GOP lawmakers continue to criticize Kelly ahead of a tough reelection race for her this year over actions she took in the spring and summer of 2020 to slow COVID-19’s spread.
Kelly said Wednesday that she met several months ago with President Joe Biden’s health secretary, Xavier Becerra, and told him that the vaccine mandate “wouldn’t work.”
“We’d be violating state law if our people were to be enforcing the federal mandates,” she said during an interview. “And so, we did work this out so that the federal government has assumed all responsibility for enforcement.”
Kelly signed a law just before Thanksgiving that made it easier for workers facing COVID-19 vaccine mandates to claim a religious exemption. In early November, days after Republicans won the governor’s race in Democratic-leaning Virginia, she broke with Biden and declared her opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Top Republicans on Wednesday dismissed her antienforcement policy as another attempt to keep independent and moderate GOP voters in her fold during her reelection campaign. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the presumed GOP nominee for governor, brought Kansas into multiple lawsuits against Biden’s vaccine mandates.
“The governor is doing anything to get elected,” said Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican. “She’s moving to the right and taking up some right territory so she can try to bring those people in and get elected.”
Kelly dismissed criticism of the policy as a political move, saying it’s consistent with the Kansas law she signed and her opposition to the vaccine mandates. She said the federal government’s charging Kansas for inspections shows her action “was not symbolic.”
“I meant it when I said that it was too late for the federal government to be coming in and imposing mandates on states when, you know, 2 years ago, all 50 states, all 50 governors were told we were on our own,” she said.
House health committee Chair Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said the federal government would have to increase its staff in Kansas to enforce the vaccine mandate and dismissed Kelly’s action as “playing politics.”
The federal government says that nearly 86% of the employees in the nursing homes it regulates have been vaccinated so that they could receive follow-up booster shots. The figure for the more than 300 federally licensed nursing homes in Kansas at the end of February was 77%, according to the state health department.
Schmidt and other Republicans argued that a vaccine mandate pushes some workers to quit, making it more difficult for homes to provide adequate care.
As for Kelly’s new policy, Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said: “It’s a smart move in an election year.”
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