Kansas Senator seeks dismissal of Reno County health officers over COVID-19 vaccines for children

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TOPEKA — Kansas Sen. Mark Steffen is calling for the top health officials in Reno County to resign or be fired for offering COVID-19 vaccines to young children.

In a June email to the county health department, the Hutchinson Republican, one of the most vocal legislators speaking out against the safe and effective vaccines, urged county commissioners to remove Karla Nichols and Karen Hammersmith from their posts should they decline to step down. This comes as some officials in other states are trying to stop the administration of the recently approved shots for children under 5 and as young as 6 months old.

Following confirmation from the Kansas Department of Health Environment regarding the rollout of vaccines, Reno County announced it would be receiving doses to be made available via appointment. In a series of Facebook posts, Steffen said a television news story indicated the department wanted to be a “leader” in providing these vaccines.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccines, stating that the benefits outweigh the risks, and the shot was “well-tolerated” in children during clinical trials.

“While I take no pleasure in sending this letter, the citizens of Reno County can no longer endure a health department that blindly and thoughtlessly follows the politicized CDC and FDA,” Steffen said in the email. “Your failure to reason the way through the virus response has led to needless suffering and even death.”

“I strongly encourage you to leave immediately on your own terms as soon as possible,” Steffen wrote.

Steffen’s frequent claims about vaccines and the effectiveness of alternative treatments are not supported by peer-reviewed clinical trials or health experts.

Two advisory panels, one for the FDA and one for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reviewed the safety of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations for children under 5 and both unanimously agreed the vaccine was ready for emergency use authorization. 

As of June 22, the CDC reported 10.2 million U.S. children ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 8.3 million have completed the vaccination series. KDHE reported 66.3% of the state population has one dose, and 55.4% have completed the two-dose series.

In Reno County, about 539 per 1,000 people over the age of 5 have received two doses of the vaccine.

“The vaccine remains the best way to protect from serious illness. This important development will help keep children safe and stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Kansas health secretary Janet Stanek. “We encourage all parents or guardians of eligible Kansans to discuss this with their healthcare provider or the medical professional at the location where you receive care about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot.”

According to reporting by The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nichols and Hammersmith received the email, and county commissioners have spoken with Steffen, but no action will be taken at this time. 

Derik Flerlage, a Democratic candidate for the Kansas House and a former Shawnee County infectious disease manager, offered support to the Reno County officials.

“You deserve to be able to provide choices for your community while not being called out and threatened by your state legislator,” Flerlage said via Twitter. “It is clear that some aren’t against mandates but simply against anything.”

About one-third of the 105 Kansas counties opted for the first opportunity to receive vaccine doses for younger children.

As of June 29, KDHE has recorded 806,934 COVID-19 cases and 8,952 deaths, including 4,988 new cases and seven deaths in the past week.

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control for the University of Kansas Health System, said despite children being less likely to get the disease, taking precautionary measures was the best course of action.

“We know that a lot of children have already been infected mostly through this Omicron wave,” Hawkinson said. “These next vaccine doses now we’re going to help codify and make more durable that immune response as well, so if you get infected or if your child gets infected, they’ll have a lot better protection moving down the road.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

See the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence and Douglas County on The Lawrence Times’ stat dashboard at this link.

Find out where you can get the free COVID-19 vaccine at this link.

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