Governor says LCC doesn’t have authority to interfere; ACLU files lawsuit for early release of vulnerable prisoners; lawsuit says prison staff are threatening inmates who report symptoms of COVID-19; health secretary lashes out at Republicans, answers kids’ questions; state records 42 deaths, 1,106 infections
This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly announced Thursday she has instructed legal counsel to file lawsuit against the Republican-controlled panel that overturned her executive order limiting the size of church crowds.
The governor said she would challenge the authority of the Legislative Coordinating Council, a panel of five Republican and two Democratic legislative leaders, and ask the Kansas Supreme Court to expedite the matter.
Kelly issued an executive order earlier this week to criminalize gatherings of 10 or more individuals at churches and funerals, a decision made after health officials connected three outbreaks of COVID-19 to religious gatherings. The LCC voted along party lines to reject the order, with Republicans saying it was good public policy but a violation of constitutional rights.
"What the LCC did yesterday, in concert with the Kansas attorney general, weakened and confused our emergency response efforts, putting every Kansan at risk,“ Kelly said. ”I will not stand by with lives in jeopardy.“
The Legislature passed a resolution before adjourning in March that extended an emergency declaration for the coronavirus into January 2021. Conservative Republicans insisted on amending the resolution to require the LCC to review every executive order the governor signs.
Wednesday’s action by the LCC marked the first time the panel has reversed one of the governor’s orders.
State law grants the governor broad powers under an emergency declaration, with executive orders carrying the full force of law. Kelly said she would challenge whether the LCC has the authority to interfere with her orders, a possible violation of separation of powers.
"I'm very confident we are on firm legal ground to do this,“ Kelly said. ”We felt this way for a while, but we didn't need to do anything about it until the LCC's actions yesterday.“
Governors in 44 states have imposed similar restrictions, and 18 states have closed churches altogether. Kansas churches were ordered closed during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Kelly said Vice President Mike Pence told her in a phone call Thursday he supported the effort to limit mass gatherings.
The governor clashed with Republican leaders and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt over the issue. Before the LCC took action, Schmidt had instructed law enforcement across the state to disregard her order.
Schmidt also offered alternative language that would have decriminalized violations of the order, which Kelly declined. The governor said she offered on Thursday to tweak the language and avoid a court battle, but Republicans refused.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, said it wasn’t good policy to endorse an executive order that didn’t have the blessing of the attorney general.
The governor, Wagle said, “is playing politics with this lawsuit.”
The issue could have been resolved, Wagle said, had Kelly agreed not to arrest and prosecute people attending a worship service.
“This is still America, where citizens’ voices are heard and our constitution matters,” Wagle said.
In a joint statement, House Republican leaders said Thursday they believe Kansans should stay home on Easter Sunday but shouldn’t be arrested if they defy the order.
“Despite repeated attempts to solve this problem and create a constitutional order,” they said, “the governor has opted to create confusion and tie this issue up in the courts. We take seriously our obligation to protect people’s lives during this pandemic, and we know that the governor does too. We urge the governor to allow for a solution today that is safe and legal.”
Health officials have documented 42 deaths and 1,106 infections in Kansas, with numbers expected to escalate sharply for at least two more weeks.
ACLU files lawsuit
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas is asking the Kansas Supreme Court to expedite the release of state prisoners at risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
The eight prisoners identified in the ACLU petition sleep and eat in confined areas and have underlying health problems that make them vulnerable to serious illness if infected with COVID-19. They range in age from 21 to 57 and are housed at Lansing, Ellsworth and Topeka correctional facilities.
At the Lansing prison, 12 inmates and 14 staff members have tested positive for the virus.
ACLU also accuses Lansing staff of threatening residents with solitary confinement and withholding shower access if they report symptoms of COVID-19.
Sashada Makthepharak, a 35-year-old Lansing inmate who was convicted of first-degree murder and other crimes when he was 16 years old, is eligible for release in April 2021.
“A number of people in Mr. Makthepharak’s cellhouse have COVID-19 symptoms but are choosing not to report them because they were told by staff that they would be put in the hole and deprived of access to a shower for the duration of their quarantine,” the ACLU court filing says. “He has received delayed and inadequate treatment for illnesses in KDOC custody in the past and has serious concerns that he will receive substandard care if he were to contract COVID-19 while he is incarcerated.”
Rebecca Witte, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the agency encourages residents to report any symptoms immediately. The agency has removed the $2 fee for medical visits, and staff is actively looking for symptoms, she said.
“First and foremost, we always encourage our staff to treat residents with dignity and respect,” Witte said. “Any intimidation by our staff toward residents, or other staff members, is not tolerated. This is a difficult time for everyone, especially for those who are separated from their loved ones.”
Witte said KDOC has worked closely with health officials to develop policies and procedures to protect inmates. That includes screening of all employees and inmates who have off-site work requirements. New arrivals kept in isolation for 14.
Other men at Lansing suffer from Hepatitis C, tuberculosis, liver cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, according to the ACLU filing. Those men say social distancing isn’t possible in the prison, where they sit 6 inches apart while eating in groups of 100.
“Petitioners are housed in crowded facilities with limited access to adequate medical treatment and sanitation supplies,” the ACLU said in its petition. “Several petitioners also have preexisting medical conditions that make them uniquely vulnerable to serious complications and death if they contract the COVID-19 virus — which has already infected both staff and individuals housed within Kansas prisons.”
Witte said there are no plans to free anyone ahead of scheduled release dates, but the governor and KDOC officials "are in the exploratory phase of examining additional options to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in Kansas prisons.“
The state’s top health official has fielded questions from policy makers, legislators, news reporters and even children.
But if you wondered how Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman felt about the decision by Republican legislators to overturn the governor’s ban on large church crowds, you didn’t need to ask.
Norman made his frustration known in a tweet late Wednesday.
“Nothing fun, nothing fancy,” Norman said. “Whatever Kansas legislators do doesn’t reverse what the public needs to do. Stay home so we can beat this scourge. Despite what the ’leaders’ of the Legislature say. We are so close, and they are doing politics. Don’t fall for it! I am SO angry! Shame!”
Responding to feedback, Norman added: "I am a nice, temperate man. But not tonight. I’m angry at what ’leaders’ did, who put all of us at risk for their political posturing. And our kids and our elders."
Over the past five weeks, Norman has dished advice and science to anyone who would listen about the threat of COVID-19. When Norman isn’t dressing down adults for not taking stay-at-home orders and other guidelines seriously, he sets aside time to answer questions from Kansas children who may be hesitant to ask difficult questions of their parents and teachers.
In a five-part series of videos, Norman provided the following responses to kids of middle school ages.
If you hug or high-five someone, can you get coronavirus?
The answer is, yeah, you could. It's transmitted by direct touch, and a high-five could do that. That's why it's really important to make sure that the surfaces around you are clean and your hands are kept clean and you're not always touching your face.
The other thing that you can do as a kid is, when you see anybody in your family, you can be like a little policeman and just say, “Dad, don't put your fingers in that bag of potato chips without washing your hands.“
If I get a dog kiss, will I get the virus?
I don't think you should ever get a dog kiss. You don't know where their mouth has been. But to more directly answer the question, dogs are not known to carry the coronavirus, so I think the answer is no, but I would not make it a practice to get dog kisses because they have other things that could make you sick, so probably not a good idea.
I want to know when I can come back to my school with my friends.
The reason you're not in school with your friends is because of the fact that this coronavirus, COVID-19, seems to be more prevalent, more common, when people, whether they're kids or adults, gather together. So that's why you're not in school. Once the number of infections and the amount of sickness caused by this goes to a very low amount, then you'll be able to go back to school and back to your friends.
So even though you're not in school, I suspect that you wonder why you can't be with your friends now. And the reason is, it's not a great idea to congregate together because you'll run the risk of having each other catch the same infection.
What's a pangolin?
What a pangolin is is a spiny anteater, and they are in Asia. The reason that these have been talked about in recent times is because of the fact that some of their genetic material, which means the things that make a pangolin a pangolin, have gotten into the coronavirus, and that has added to it. It's really a creature about the size of a football. It's a pretty harmless creature, but it seems to have had some impact on the virus.
What is the likelihood that someone in the middle school years could be infected?
It's really not very likely. The vast majority of the cases are in older people and people with illnesses. It can happen in children, and there are occasionally kids that get infected with the coronavirus so that they have the symptoms, but it's not happening very much. And there's probably a lot of kids that actually catch the virus but don't ever manifest any symptoms or maybe just a very minor illness.
So thankfully, middle school kids and children in general are relatively protected from the virus. It doesn't mean that you can turn a blind eye to it. You still have to do the things that are important — hand-washing, covering your cough by coughing into your elbow, not touching your face and picking your nose, and sticking fingers into your ears and everything.