TOPEKA — Salina Rep. Steven Howe was among Republican conservatives in the Kansas House skeptical about COVID-19 vaccines.
The virus’ attack on people he knew, including some who died, a comprehensive review of vaccine information, and encouragement of trusted friends and family convinced him to accept Pfizer’s vaccine in August. Rather than keeping his vaccination status private, he’s taken an additional step by publicly encouraging others to get the shots.
He said the decision was not to be taken lightly. He believes firmly in individual rights and responsibilities, but his embrace of the vaccine was part of keeping his family and community safe from a virus factoring in the death of nearly 5,600 Kansans.
“Honestly, like many, I struggled to navigate the tremendous amount of information and misinformation that is out there,” Howe said. “I wanted to do my best to make an informed decision. But ultimately, it finally came down to trust, and whether or not I was willing to trust those with the education, training and expertise regarding this vaccine.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 47.7% of eligible residents in Saline County were fully vaccinated. Overall, the CDC said, 57.6% of eligible Kansans have been fully vaccinated.
Howe said rising demand for hospital beds, including facilities such as the Salina Regional Health Center, was influential in his decision to receive the vaccine.
“I believe it is time to start trusting our institutions again, while also respecting the freedom of individuals to make health care decisions they’re comfortable with,” Howe said. “If you haven’t received your vaccine yet, please consider doing so.”
Non nobis solum
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican seeking re-election, stood with Washburn University president Jerry Farley in a campus building to take questions from reporters. Moran said impetus of the visit was to learn more about how the pandemic was influencing higher education, especially in terms of federal funding that flowed to colleges and universities.
Both men pivoted to the issue of COVID-19 vaccination of Kansans, and their desire for more people to accept this preventative measure.
“It’s impossible for the federal government to continue to just provide money to all the places that are damaged by COVID,” Moran said. “I’d use this opportunity to encourage students and faculty at Washburn, and the people of Kansas, to be vaccinated. We don’t have the resources just to continue trying to pay for the consequences of our health risks.”
Farley said the motto of Washburn University was “non nobis solum,” which could be translated to “not for ourselves alone.” The Latin text is cast in bronze outside Morgan Hall where he was standing. The pandemic and debate about vaccines places into context the value of contributing to the greater good of society apart from self interests, he said.
He said the available vaccines for COVID-19 were safe and capable of saving lives. And, he said, it was important for people in prominent positions of leadership to talk about benefits of vaccination.
“I know there’s a lot of myths out there,” Farley said. “There’s a lot of things that are questionable, that are being bandied about on social media. But our students understand what it means to think critically.”
Moran said he wasn’t in favor of mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, because the decision must remain with the individual. He said acceptable exceptions include directives by private businesses in terms of employees. Several large hospitals in the Kansas City area, including the University of Kansas Hospital System, are requiring staff to be vaccinated.
“I would just encourage them to think it’s not just about themselves, but it’s also about people they know in their families, their neighbors and their community,” Moran said. “We continue to promote good science and medicine, but people need to make that determination.”
‘Giving people grace’
Howe said a small portion of reaction to his support of COVID-19 vaccination had been negative. He said conservatives in health care professions shared appreciation for his public stand.
“I would say probably 95% of reaction I’ve received has been positive,” he said.
The question of how to deal with the pandemic in Kansas became a partisan issue as many Republicans worked against executive orders and other directives tied to COVID-19. Democrats largely accepted work by Gov. Laura Kelly to take sweeping action in 2020 by shifting K-12 and college instruction to online formats, requiring wearing of face coverings in public as well as designating certain occupations nonessential so some workers remained off the job.
Kelly, who has conducted a campaign to convince people to be tested and vaccinated, also sustained federal aid to the unemployed after state and federal GOP lawmakers insisted she cut off benefits. She hasn’t expressed interest in vaccination mandates, but recently ordered executive branch employees to work from home if possible as the delta variant of COVID-19 surged across the state.
Howe joined with Moran in arguing against a vaccination mandate handed down by government because it would likely do more harm than good. He said opponents of vaccinations were likely to stiffen their resolve. It’s the same thought behind objection to mask mandates, he said.
“It’s too heavy handed,” Howe said. “We have to be understanding and respectful of one another.”
He said it was difficult for people to fully grasp circumstances of others in terms of vaccination during the pandemic. In his case, he said, his mother, a retired nurse, was influential in his decision.
“It’s hard to understand someone else’s journey,” he said. “I always error on the side of giving people grace. I think we need to love thy neighbor.”
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