Kansas elected leaders approve funding for COVID PSAs; state disaster declaration extended; Kelly says no shutdown

With COVID-19 at record levels, state elected leaders Friday agreed to fund public service announcements urging Kansans to follow what health officials have been saying for months to fight the pandemic — wear face masks, don’t gather in large crowds, observe good hygiene and socially distance.

Meeting as the State Finance Council, the leaders also approved Gov. Laura Kelly’s request to extend the state disaster declaration through Dec. 15, which will allow the state through its various emergency agencies to help in the COVID response and gain assistance from the federal government. Under state law, statewide disaster declarations are limited to 30 days but can be extended by the Finance Council.

And Kelly, under questioning from Republicans, assured she would not close down the state as a way to fight the pandemic, which is currently straining hospitals, forcing remote and hybrid school modes and prompting new mask requirements throughout the state.

“We have no thoughts on shutting down the state,” Kelly said, adding that she is focused on getting the public service announcements done and putting out more COVID-19 tests.

In March, Kelly had ordered school buildings closed for the remainder of the school year and then enacted a statewide stay-at-home order, which later became voluntary guidelines that local authorities could decide.

The Finance Council, which is chaired by Kelly, a Democrat, and includes 6 legislative leaders — four Republicans and two Democrats — also approved unanimously moving $25 million in federal COVID funds to the state general fund, $1.5 million for the PSAs and flexibility in the use of some federal COVID funds because of the approaching Dec. 30 deadline to expend those funds.

Kelly and Republican legislative leaders have often been at odds on how to handle the pandemic and those differences arose again during Friday’s meeting.

Two motions by Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, to change Kelly’s testing proposal and put further restrictions on the COVID funding, failed. The motions received five Republican votes, but Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, did not attend the meeting, so the motions died because six votes are needed to gain Finance Council approval.

Later, Kelly announced that 11 contracts have been awarded to expand testing of COVID-19 in Kansas.

“Kansas is at a critical point with COVID-19,” Kelly said. “Our communities are continuing to experience a significant amount of cases. Until a vaccine is widely available, one of the most important strategies to protect Kansans and ensure a promising economy is to increase testing.”

“When combined with wearing face masks, extensive testing – along with isolating those who are positive and quarantining close contacts — poses the most probable fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as we head into the winter months,” said Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The Kansas Unified Testing Strategy will allow for broader routine screening to stop community spread of the virus and will ensure coordination between public and private testing efforts, including surveillance testing, Kelly said.

So far, Kansas has recorded 115,507 COVID cases, 4,327 hospitalizations and 1,256 deaths.

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