Kansas senator wants county health officials fired over COVID-19 vaccines for kids

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

In an email to the county health department, Republican Hutchinson, one of the most vocal legislators speaking out against safe and effective vaccines, called on county commissioners to remove Carla Nichols and Karen Hammersmith from their posts if they refuse to step down. It comes as some officials in other states are trying to stop the recently approved vaccines for children under 5 and up to 6 months old.

Following confirmation from the Kansas Department of Health regarding the release of vaccines, Reno County announced that it will receive doses that will be provided by appointment. In a series of Facebook posts, Steffen said a television news report indicated the department wanted to be a “leader” in providing those vaccines.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccines, saying the benefits outweighed the risks and the injection 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 tolerate a health department that blindly and recklessly follows the politicized CDC and FDA,” Steffen said in the email. “Your failure to consider the way to respond to the virus has led to unnecessary 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 groups, 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 years of age, and both unanimously agreed that the vaccine is ready for emergency use authorization.

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

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

“Vaccine remains the best way to prevent serious disease. 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 health care provider or the health care professional at the location where you receive care about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot.”

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

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

“You deserve to be able to provide choice to your community without being subpoenaed and threatened by your state legislature,” Flerlage said via Twitter. “Clearly some are not against mandates, just against everything.”

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

As of June 29, KDHE has recorded 806,934 cases of COVID-19 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 at the University of Kansas Health System, said that although children are less likely to contract the disease, taking precautions is the best course of action.

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

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