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A Kansas Twist — COVID-19: Are We Out of the Woods Yet? (March 11, 2022)

By Hina B. Shah, M.P.H. | March 11, 2022

A Kansas Twist — COVID-19: Are We Out of the Woods Yet? (March 11, 2022)

Are we out of the woods yet? This latest blog from A Kansas Twist discusses what remains of COVID-19 policy — nationally and in Kansas. Previous blog posts tracking coronavirus-related policies from 2020-2021 can be found at these links: A Kansas Twist — Reopening Plans for Kansas Counties and A Kansas Twist — Following the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout in Kansas.

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As we step into spring after weathering two waves of increased COVID-19 cases — due to the Delta and Omicron variants — there are no countywide or statewide restrictions in place in Kansas as of March 3. Several school districts are discussing whether to maintain or remove school measures through the remainder of the school year in light of the recent guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics on how communities can approach COVID-19 mitigation measures. While state and county restrictions have been pulled back, legislators, health care providers and researchers have continued taking actions in response to the rapidly changing COVID-19 pandemic.

The highly contagious Delta variant dominated through the summer and fall of 2021. However, at the end of 2021 and through the beginning of 2022, the highly contagious (but less lethal) Omicron variant dominated. KDHE reported 12,462 new cases on January 18, 2022, at the peak of the surge. During those recent waves, at least two Kansas counties ─ Wyandotte and Douglas ─ had mask mandates in place. Wyandotte County’s mask mandate became effective on August 6, 2021, and with several extensions was set to expire on January 6, 2022. However, the mask mandate was rescinded on December 16, 2021. Douglas County’s 2022 mask mandate became effective on January 7 and remained in force until March 2.

While cases soared and few county restrictions were in place, health care facilities throughout the state were sounding the alarm of their struggle to respond under staffing shortages. On January 6, 2022, Governor Laura Kelly signed a State of Disaster Emergency Proclamation and issued two Executive Orders (EO 22-01 and EO 22-02) to provide the state’s hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and long-term care facilities with temporary measures to address their staffing shortages. With the EOs set to expire on Friday, January 21, the Legislature passed House Bill (HB) 2477 to codify the provisions of Governor Kelly’s executive orders (EOs) and it was signed into law on January 21, effective immediately.

With the emergence of the new variants, there was a rise in vaccine breakthrough infections, which is when a fully vaccinated person is infected. Studies on COVID-19 case, hospitalization and death rates have found vaccine effectiveness decreased during this time but continued to protect against severe outcomes such as hospitalizations and deaths. Nationwide, two-thirds of the population (or 69.1 percent of those eligible age 5 and older) are fully vaccinated as of February 28, 2022. Nearly 6 in 10 (57.2 percent) eligible Kansans had completed a COVID-19 vaccine series and were fully vaccinated as of February 28, 2022. On October 29, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric COVID-19 vaccine for children age 5-11. Four days later it was endorsed by the CDC. In addition, eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine booster was expanded to all individuals over age 18 on November 19, 2021, and to individuals age 12 and older on January 5, 2022. The definition of 'fully vaccinated,' according to the CDC, means a person has received all recommended doses in their primary series of COVID-19 vaccine. 

Recently, on February 25, the CDC issued an interim COVID-19 immunization schedule, which changed the timing between vaccination doses for some people age 12 to 64, and especially males age 12 to 39 who may benefit from getting their second COVID-19 mRNA vaccine dose eight weeks after receiving their first dose. This change was based on studies in adolescents (ages 12-17 years) and adults, which found the small risk of myocarditis associated with mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may be reduced, and peak antibody responses and vaccine effectiveness may be increased, with an interval longer than the initial recommendation of four weeks. The studies showed no additional benefit beyond eight weeks, however. 

In the face of another surge in COVID-19 cases, some states took action around COVID-19 vaccine mandates and passports. As of February 23, 2022, Hawaii has implemented a COVID-19 proof of vaccination mandate, 22 states (including Kansas) have banned such mandates, and at least 13 states (not Kansas) have a digital app available for vaccine verification. On May 26, 2021, Governor Kelly signed Senate Bill (SB) 159 ─ the omnibus appropriations bill ─ which added a section prohibiting state agencies from issuing a COVID-19 vaccination passport in Fiscal Years 2021-2022 to any individual without such individual's consent or requiring an individual to use a COVID-19 vaccination passport within the state for any purpose. 

Some states also took action around requirements for certain workers to be vaccinated or comply with mask and COVID-19 testing requirements. As of February 23, 2022, at least two states ─ Montana and Tennessee ─ have banned vaccine mandates and/or private employer mandates and at least nine states (including Kansas) have set limitations or exemptions for vaccine mandates. On November 22, 2021, Kansas lawmakers passed Special Session HB 2001, which requires employers who impose COVID-19 vaccine requirements to allow medical and religious exemptions; authorizes employees to file complaints with the Secretary of Labor for violations of the law; authorizes district courts to impose civil penalties; and allows employees who are discharged or suspended in violation of the law or decline to work if required to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

At least 27 states (including Kansas) also have filed lawsuits challenging federal vaccine requirements for federal contractors, employers with 100+ employees and certified Medicare/Medicaid providers. Based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the rule on January 13, 2022, CMS released updated guidance for 24 states (including Kansas) which expects full compliance from providers by March 15, 2022. On February 23, 2022, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked federal courts to reopen litigation challenging the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Check back for more information as we continue to monitor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kansas Health Institute supports effective policymaking through nonpartisan research, education and engagement. KHI believes evidence-based information, objective analysis and civil dialogue enable policy leaders to be champions for a healthier Kansas. Established in 1995 with a multiyear grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, KHI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization based in Topeka.