May 22, 2020 3:00 PM

Kan. lawmakers vote to curb governor's power, bar COVID-19 suits

Posted May 22, 2020 3:00 PM
Members of the Kansas Senate voting on the COVID-19 bill just before 6:30a.m. Friday
Members of the Kansas Senate voting on the COVID-19 bill just before 6:30a.m. Friday

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans pushed a sweeping coronavirus measure through the GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature on Friday, aiming to shield businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits and take control of the state’s pandemic response from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Some Democrats predicted Kelly would veto the bill, but her office stopped short of promising that, issuing a statement Thursday accusing GOP lawmakers of trying to “cram” measures through the Legislature without vetting them. Democrats objected to curbing Kelly’s power and predicted that substandard nursing homes and manufacturers of defective personal protective equipment would be shielded from being held accountable in the state’s courts.

The bill reflects Republicans’ view that Kelly is moving too slowly to reopen the state’s economy and has been too aggressive in imposing restrictions. She imposed a statewide stay-at-home order from March 30 until May 4 and plans to lift restrictions on businesses in phases through June 23.

Lawmakers had convened Thursday for one last day in session this year after a coronavirus-mandated break that started March 20, and they extended their last day into Friday morning to get all of their work done. Democrats noted repeatedly that Republicans were passing their bill after President Donald Trump said publicly that Kelly and Arkansas’ Republican governor have “done a fabulous job” in handling the pandemic in their states.

“When you elect someone to be your general in the fight, you fire them in the middle of the fight and replace them with a committee,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat. “That’s not the way you win a war.”

Members of the Kansas House debated the COVID-19 bill just after 7a.m. Friday on a marathon final day in the statehouse- photo courtesy Rep. Cindy Holscher
Members of the Kansas House debated the COVID-19 bill just after 7a.m. Friday on a marathon final day in the statehouse- photo courtesy Rep. Cindy Holscher

The Republican plan would require Kelly to get permission from legislative leaders to keep businesses closed for more than 15 days or to exercise other broad powers granted to governors during emergencies after May 31. Counties that could document a case for lesser restrictions could impose them.

Kelly would not be allowed to order the confiscation of guns or to block their sale — steps she has never contemplated.

Also, legislative leaders also would have the final say over how the state spends $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.

The votes for the bill were 27-11 in the Senate and 76-34 in the House and sent the measure to Kelly. Legislators adjourned their session immediately following the House vote, nearly 24 hours after they had convened.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, U.S. Senate candidate and vocal Kelly critic, argued that “financial security is just as important in our culture as health security.”

“We are here to protect Kansans’ health and to protect their pocketbooks,” Wagle said, urging colleagues to support the bill.

Kelly has said she’s open to protecting doctors, clinics and hospitals from lawsuits over decisions to delay non-coronavirus care during the pandemic. But shielding businesses from lawsuits is a priority of Republicans and business groups nationally, with Congress and other states considering it.

“There may be good defenses, but with a class-action lawsuit, the goal is not to get all the way to trial with a jury and a judge. It’s to get past the early phases of the litigation and put the pressure on the defendant to settle,” said Harold Kim, president of the Institute for Legal Reform, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The immediate concern is the uncertainty. How do you remove this cloud of liability as businesses are trying to reopen?”

But the Working Kansas Alliance, a coalition of union groups, argued the bill could grant “total immunity” and labeled it “dangerous.”

Carmichael noted that some but not all businesses, including manufacturers of personal protective equipment and nursing homes, would be protected from lawsuits for negligence over coronavirus infections. Carmichael said a “negligent Chinese manufacturer” might have more protection than a Main Street business.

Because legislators adjourned for the year, they cannot override a Kelly veto. But Republicans hoped passing a bill would box Kelly in because her existing state of emergency, allowing her to tap broad powers for a response, remains in effect only through Memorial Day.

The bill would extend the state of emergency through May 31, then require Kelly to get legislative leaders’ permission to extend it.

If the state of emergency ends, some 30 orders that Kelly issued would expire. They include orders for a phased reopening of the state’s economy, as well as others banning evictions for people who can’t pay their rent during the pandemic and prohibiting utilities from cutting off services for customers who fall behind on their bills.

Many Democrats believe Kelly could declare another state of emergency. However, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, issued a legal opinion late Wednesday saying that Kansas law doesn’t allow multiple declarations during the same emergency. His opinion is non-binding, but could inspire legal challenges to Kelly’s actions.

___

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans on Friday were advancing a big package in the GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature that would shield businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits while also taking control of the state’s pandemic response from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

GOP leaders expected both the House and Senate to vote by dawn Friday on a sweeping bill drafted by Republicans. It reflects their view that Kelly is moving too slowly to reopen the state’s economy and has been too aggressive in imposing restrictions. She imposed a statewide stay-at-home order from March 30 until May 4 and plans to lift restrictions on businesses in phases through June 23.

Democrats strongly opposed the curbs on Kelly’s power. They also were skeptical of the protections against lawsuits, fearing such measures could prevent businesses from being held accountable for negligence or misconduct, even though supporters said that wouldn’t happen.

On Thursday, Kelly’s office stopped short of saying she would veto the GOP’s bill, but accused Republicans of trying to “cram” measures through the Legislature without vetting them. Lawmakers had convened Thursday for one last day in session this year after a coronavirus-mandated break that started March 20, and they extended their last day well past midnight to get all of their work done.

“Everything tends to be suspect, even if it comes in a package that might look pretty,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Kansas City-area Democrat. “We’ve seen ugly and strange things happen this late.”

The Republican plan would require Kelly to get permission from legislative leaders to keep businesses closed or to exercise other broad powers granted to governors during emergencies after May 31. Legislative leaders also would have the final say over how the state spends $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.

“The oversight’s always good,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican. “In this situation, a lot of people think she went too far, so this is how we deal with it.”

Kansas saw coronavirus cases rise to more than 8,600 as of Thursday, with more than 200 COVID-19-related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. But recent increases in cases have been driven largely by outbreaks in meatpacking plants, a state prison in Lansing and in the Kansas City area. Twenty-one of the state’s 105 counties reported no cases as of Wednesday, and 48 had seen no new cases within the previous two weeks.

Kelly has said she’s open to protecting doctors, clinics and hospitals from lawsuits over decisions to delay non-coronavirus care during the pandemic. But shielding businesses from lawsuits is a priority of Republicans and business groups nationally, with Congress and other states considering it.

“There may be good defenses, but with a class-action lawsuit, the goal is not to get all the way to trial with a jury and a judge. It’s to get past the early phases of the litigation and put the pressure on the defendant to settle,” said Harold Kim, president of the Institute for Legal Reform, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The immediate concern is the uncertainty. How do you remove this cloud of liability as businesses are trying to reopen?”

Republicans said businesses and medical providers still could be sued over negligence or misconduct. But the Working Kansas Alliance, a coalition of union groups, argued the bill could grant “total immunity” and labeled it “dangerous.”

Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and attorney, said considering protections from lawsuits normally would require months of work.

“These were significant pieces of legislation that were thrown together haphazardly and thrown together in a quilt,” Ward said.

Because legislators were not scheduled to be in session again this year after they adjourned Friday, they could not override a Kelly veto. But Republicans hoped passing a bill would box Kelly in because her existing state of emergency, allowing her to tap broad powers for a response, remains in effect only through Memorial Day.

The bill would extend the state of emergency through May 31, then require Kelly to get legislative leaders’ permission to extend it.

If the state of emergency ends, some 30 orders that Kelly issued would expire. They include orders for a phased reopening of the state’s economy, as well as others banning evictions for people who can’t pay their rent during the pandemic and prohibiting utilities from cutting off services for customers who fall behind on their bills.

Many Democrats believe Kelly could declare another state of emergency. However, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, issued a legal opinion late Wednesday saying that Kansas law doesn’t allow multiple declarations during the same emergency. His opinion is non-binding, but could inspire legal challenges to Kelly’s actions.

Continue Reading St Joseph Post
May 22, 2020 3:00 PM
Detective, nurse, confidant: Virus tracers play many roles
Kansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Lee Norman discussed the importance of contact tracers during the governor's press conference last week.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Health investigator Mackenzie Bray smiles and chuckles as she chats by phone with a retired Utah man who just tested positive for the coronavirus.

She’s trying to keep the mood light because she needs to find out where he’s been and who he’s been around for the past seven days. She gently peppers him with questions, including where he and his wife stopped to buy flowers on a visit to a cemetery. She encourages him to go through his bank statement to see if it reminds him of any store visits he made.

Midway through the conversation, a possible break: His wife lets slip that they had family over for Mother’s Day, including a grandchild who couldn’t stop slobbering.

“Was there like a shared food platter or something like that?” Bray asks. “There was, OK, yep ... sharing food or sharing drinks, even just being on the same table, it can spread that way.’”

Suddenly, with a shared punch bowl, the web has widened, and Bray has dozens more people to track down.

She is among an army of health professionals around the world filling one of the most important roles in the effort to guard against a resurgence of the coronavirus. The practice of so-called contact tracing requires a hybrid job of interrogator, therapist and nurse as they try coax nervous people to be honest.

The goal: To create a road map of everywhere infected people have been and who they’ve been around.

While other countries have devised national approaches, a patchwork of efforts has emerged in the U.S. where states are left to create their own program.

Bray normally does this type of work to track contacts for people with sexually transmitted diseases. She is now one of 130 people at the Salt Lake County health department assigned to track coronavirus cases in the Salt Lake City area. The investigators, many of them nurses, each juggle 30 to 40 cases, and try to reach everyone the original person was within 6 feet  of for 10 minutes or more. They stay in touch with some people throughout the 14-day incubation period, and calls can take 30 minutes or more as they meticulously go through a list of questions.

Some estimate as many as 300,000 contact tracers would be needed in the U.S. to adequately curtail the spread. While some states like Utah have reported having enough contact tracers, others are hundreds or even thousands of people short.

The contact tracers often find themselves in a tangled web of half-truths and facts that don’t match up. Language and cultural barriers arise that require interpreters and taxing conversations that leave the investigators wondering if the person understands what they’re trying to do.

They land on occasion into complicated family dynamics where people are reluctant to tell the truth.

Health investigator Maria DiCaro found out days into a case that a father was sleeping in his car because he and his wife were separating. The man had stopped returning DiCaro’s calls, and that key information came from his child.

“I get people that lie all time,” DiCaro said. “I try to get as much information from the beginning but it’s just not always the case. And time is one of those things you can’t take back when you are trying to prevent and you know do these contact tracing investigations.”

Each call is an exercise in good cop, bad cop. She needs people to cooperate, but no one is legally required to answer the questions. Usually kindness works better than strong words.

Some people lie because they’re scared, or they forget an outing. Construction workers, housekeepers and others without paid sick time may gloss over symptoms so they can get back to work. Some immigrants without documentation brush off testing because they fear it could lead to deportation.

“People sometimes think contact tracing is black and white but there is a lot of gray that goes into it,” said Bray, who often thinks about her parents and 97-year-old grandmother as she works to help stop the spread of the virus. “Our worst fear is that we push too hard and we lose someone. It’s not just their health on the line, it’s the people around them.”

No matter the tension, Bray and DiCaro give frequent reminders of why it all matters: “Thank you for what you’re doing. You’re helping the community,” DiCaro says during one call.

She knows that on the other end of the line, the first call from a tracer can be jarring. Sometimes, DiCaro and Bray have to break the news that someone was exposed or tested positive.

“It’s normal to talk to like your doctor, but you don’t ever expect the health department to call you and be like, ‘You were exposed to a serious disease,’” said Anissa Archuleta.

The 23-year-old got a call from DiCaro after she, her sister and her mother took a rare break from hunkering down to help organize a drive-by birthday party for a young cousin. They dropped off a present, then caved and accepted an impromptu invitation to go inside to grab some food.

What they didn’t know: the father of the birthday boy had the coronavirus, and unknowingly exposed more than a dozen people at the gathering.

After that first call, DiCaro checked in every day for two weeks. The fear slowly faded after their tests came back negative and they began building a rapport with DiCaro. She asked about their symptoms and how they were feeling each day and learned about how Archuleta’s mother lost her voice to fibromyalgia. Archuleta would pass along messages her mother whispered in her ear.

And after a while, Archuleta began asking DiCaro about her life and how she was holding up.

About a week in to their calls, on the daily check-in, Archuleta thanked DiCaro for caring about them and checking in every day. Tears welled up in DiCaro’s eyes.

“Ah thanks,” she said as she grabbed a Kleenex to wipe her eyes.

After she hung up, she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes for a few seconds.

“When you do this like 10-12 hours a day ... It’s nice to get those positive reactions from people that are very grateful who do see the purpose of what we are doing,” said DiCaro. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”