Kansas Dropped The Ball on COVID-19 Response
If you were at the Okun Fieldhouse COVID-19 vaccination center in Shawnee last Tuesday, you could witness the mortifying spectacle of senior citizens forced to line up in the freezing cold to get their first shot, an embarrassing planning failure which one senior’s family member called a “zoo.” Once concerned citizen’s email to Johnson County commissioners says it all: “Do better.”
Unfortunately this kind of setback is becoming the norm, not the exception, as the state’s vaccination effort goes off the rails. While numbers fluctuate daily, Kansas currently ranks 48th in vaccine administration with 8.57 doses given per 100 people. (Only Alabama and Idaho are worse.) Less than 2% of Kansans are fully vaccinated, while 6.8% have received at least one shot. Right now, Kansas only has enough doses on hand to vaccinate about 10% of the 2.5 million people they’ll need to reach in order to achieve our target of 85% of the state’s population.
The state is doing about as badly on other key metrics like daily testing. According to Johns Hopkins University, on February 4th Kansas performed a paltry 133 tests per 100,000 people – putting the state 47th nationwide, behind all states except Idaho, Iowa, and South Dakota. These numbers are unacceptable, considering that business, healthcare, and education are all counting on testing and vaccines to open up and get back to work.
This isn’t the first time the governor’s COVID response has let Kansans down. Public health officials admit that their response to the pandemic has been seriously flawed, reflecting critical gaps in healthcare provision along with failures of political leadership. The lamentable vaccination rate reflects poor planning, delayed and rushed procurement and generally sloppy administration. The governor’s account, blaming vaccine shortages, is doubtful in light of data from federal stockpiles showing the state agency hasn’t even been ordering its full allotment – a grievous administrative error with life and death implications for thousands of ordinary people.
It’s not just COVID-19-related priorities that have gone awry. The last year has seen unforced errors by large state bureaucracies dealing with largely familiar tasks amid the pandemic. The abysmal performance of the Department of Labor in administering long-established benefits to citizens, dragging on for months and in the headlines again with the department’s recent multi-day absence, are especially galling considering repeated budget earmarks for urgently-needed IT upgrades in the years leading up to COVID. The department’s repeated IT and customer service failures are unforgivable in an age of e-commerce and online banking.
As these administrative debacles indicate, failures of leadership predated COVID-19. On that note, while balanced budgets may not be an immediate priority, any prospect of an eventual return to fiscal discipline in the longer term has to be a distant hope considering the state’s pre-pandemic budgetary lapses. Repeated tax increases failed to close a yawning fiscal gap due to “record setting” spending, leaving the state with a $1.1 billion deficit even in rosy pre-COVID forecasts. For many the financial peril was personal: before Congress acted on surprise medical bills in December 2020, Kansas had some of the worst surprise billings in the country, another issue on which the governor’s administration remained supine.
Expecting good management during the pandemic is not a pipe dream. The previous administration’s relatively hands-off approach created a natural experiment in state pandemic policy, with different states pursuing a range of competing strategies. While it’s safe to say no one is looking to big metropolitan states for lessons in COVID-19 management, some states have unquestionably handled pandemic response better than Kansas.
Erik Sass is Editor-in-Chief of The Economic Standard.