Governor says local control will replace statewide stay-at-home order; Lansing inmate dies from COVID-19; ingestion of toxic chemicals increase in Kansas; FEMA provides decontamination station for sterilization of N95 masks; high-ranking KU administrators, athletic staff to take 10% cut in pay for six months;

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly offered a preview Monday of steps she plans to take to ease pandemic restrictions while stressing the need for more testing before the economy can be reopened.


The governor said she will unveil her plans — which will include lifting her statewide stay-at-home order in favor of restrictions imposed as needed by county health officials — before the end of this week.


State officials also announced an inmate at the Lansing prison has died from the COVID-19 outbreak there. So far, 65 inmates have tested positive in Lansing, along with 71 prison employees.


Kelly said she participated Monday in a call between governors and White House officials, who discussed their vision for enhanced testing capacity. Health officials want to know how far the coronavirus has spread in a community before lifting restrictions on businesses and everyday life. Currently, it is difficult to estimate the reach of the virus because it can go undetected in some people.


"We are in agreement that we do need to work together to prioritize testing," Kelly said. "It is the only way that we can safely reopen our economy."


Her statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire May 4. She said when the order is lifted, she will re-authorize local public health officials to make more restrictive policies as warranted. Additionally, she said, Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman will have the authority to override local health officials.


Norman said he expects social distancing restrictions to remain in place for the rest of this year.


"I think we're going to fundamentally change how we interact in businesses and groups of people," Norman said. "I think there's going to be a long-term impact."


Norman said he wants to see the number of hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline before he feels comfortable reopening the state. Kansas has reported 3,300 positive tests for COVID-19 and 120 fatalities. Three-fourths of deaths have been in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.


About one-third of the state’s positive tests are attributed to 55 clusters of infections at nursing homes, hospitals, religious gatherings, meat packing plants and the Lansing Correctional Facility. Norman said the death at Lansing involved an inmate over the age of 50 who had underlying health conditions. He is the first prisoner in Kansas to die from COVID-19.


Norman said poison control officials in Kansas have marked a 40% increase in the ingestion of toxic chemicals following remarks made by President Donald Trump, who seemed to suggest COVID-19 could be treated by injecting disinfectant.


One man over the weekend drank a product "because of the advice that he had received," Norman said.


Kelly also announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency has granted the state’s request for a decontamination station that will allow for the reuse of the N95 masks used by medical professionals and in short supply. The station should be operational by next week, she said, and will be able to sterilize 80,000 masks per day. Each mask can be sterilized and safely reused up to 20 times.


KU staff take pay cut


Thirty-nine academic administrators and three high-profile athletics staff at the University of Kansas agreed Monday to take a 10% reduction in pay for six months to set aside $1.3 million for ongoing operations during the pandemic.


KU Chancellor Doug Girod said 27 administrators on the Lawrence campus and a dozen at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., would absorb the salary cut. In addition, KU athletics director Jeff Long, football coach Les Miles and basketball coach Bill Self agreed to the same percentage adjustment.


The university reductions applicable to the chancellor, the chancellor’s cabinet, vice provosts and the academic school deans were expected to generate $853,000 in payroll savings that could be redeployed. The salary cuts in athletics will net $500,000.


"In addition to addressing budget needs," Girod said, "these salary reductions are consistent with the sentiment of shared sacrifice that will benefit KU and society in the weeks ahead."


The chancellor repeated an assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic, which idled most KU operations and forced courses to be taught online, would be responsible for "tens of millions of dollars" in financial losses to KU.


Self said the 17 years at KU had been good for his family, but the coronavirus was unprecedented.


"I, like others, will be returning 10 percent of my salary to help bridge the financial gap in our athletic department. These times are serious, but temporary, and it’s everyone’s hope that we can return to a safe and prosperous time soon," Self said.


Silent Statehouse


Walking across the marble floor of the Capitol rotunda generated a lonely echo.


No legislators scurried through the halls or prepared for debate on issues of the day. There were no lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers. Nobody sat in the House or Senate galleries to keep an eye on the sausage-making of state government. The building remained locked to visitors.


The Kansas Legislature was scheduled to return Monday to work on final details of the new state budget and tie up a few loose ends. If there was sufficient momentum, perhaps there could have been votes on Medicaid expansion or a constitutional amendment on abortion.


In a building where finger-pointing sometimes rises to an art form, the absence of 165 legislators from the Capitol could justifiably be blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.


House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said legislators had all sorts of answers when quizzed about returning to Topeka.


"It’s all over the board," Ryckman said. "We have a lot of folks in rural parts of the state that are anxious to come back."


The Legislative Coordinating Council, a bipartisan group of legislative leaders, plans to decide by May 6 whether to reconvene. The decision to skip Monday’s relaunch of the Legislature reflected reality that 65% of legislators are 60 years of age or older, which makes them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.


Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said there was high anxiety among some legislators about executive orders issued by Kelly. There has been concern about her stay-at-home order and the order designed to restrict religious gatherings.


"The No. 1 issue I’m hearing from my colleagues, clearly we have a statute that is outdated and doesn’t address our current concerns in this emergency," Wagle said.


She said time had come for the governor to safely begin transitioning workers back to their jobs and to allow non-essential businesses to reopen.


Budget crater


If the Republican-led Legislature declines to return until next January, Kelly would be responsible for managing a projected $1.3 billion reduction in state revenue through June 2021. The tax-collection wounds are tied to closure of much of the economy for weeks.


"I could, I suppose, call a special session, but I have no intention of doing that," the Democratic governor said.


She said the state had to identify a strategy for managing cash flow. No specific agencies have been earmarked for reductions nor have areas of state government been granted immunity from reductions. Core services of state government will be a priority, she said.


"When I talk about critical services, I’m including education," she said. "We will do everything in our power to avoid making cuts to essential services."


A collection of three emergency funding bills approved by the federal government are expected to deliver $1.25 billion to Kansas government, but the money cannot be used to fill budget holes unrelated to the coronavirus. Here is a sample of that pie: $105 million for colleges and universities, $84 million for K-12 schools, and $30 million for child care assistance. About $215 million has been set aside for local units of government.


Kelly said the federal government should adopt a fourth emergency spending bill to provide states with direct, flexible financial aid to cover loss of tax revenue.


"If we want to protect all the progress we’ve made in recent years in our schools, in our corrections systems, in our infrastructure and more, then Kansas will need help to make it through this," she said.


Before adjourning, the Legislature set aside $65 million for COVID-19 emergency relief.


Oversight


Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said the Legislature should have a formal role in authorizing expenditures of the $1.25 billion. The basic budget bill adopted by legislators granted Kelly the ability to accept federal funding not anticipated when the bill was approved in March.


"I just think that we should have oversight on the money," Billinger said. "I don’t think anyone anticipated when we did the budget that we’d be getting these types of funds."


The Kansas Department of Labor has struggled with a series of computer problems that held up unemployment benefits to about 190,000 new claimants. In addition to the flood of claims, the agency must alter IT systems to grant benefits to self-employed people, extend financial support to 26 weeks and distribute a supplemental federal payment of $600 a week to the jobless.


Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, said the state was fortunate to have entered this calamity with $928 million in the unemployment trust fund.


Kris Van Meteren, a former executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said Kelly should have dealt with the COVID-19 challenges in the manner of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who asked people to voluntarily cooperate with social distancing rather than issue a stay-at-home order.


"In other words, I urged Kansas leaders to lead the people, rather than to rule them," Van Meteren said in a letter sent to the entire Legislature.