John Hanna
Kansas government and politics reporter
APjdhannajdhanna@ap.org

Democratic Kansas governor questions Biden vaccine mandates

November 4, 2021 GMT
This photo from Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, shows Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly after an event in Topeka, Kan. The Democratic governor is suggesting that President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates will be difficult for the state to deal with and is questioning whether they will work even though mandates have boosted inoculation rates in other places. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
This photo from Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, shows Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly after an event in Topeka, Kan. The Democratic governor is suggesting that President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates will be difficult for the state to deal with and is questioning whether they will work even though mandates have boosted inoculation rates in other places. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
This photo from Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, shows Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly after an event in Topeka, Kan. The Democratic governor is suggesting that President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates will be difficult for the state to deal with and is questioning whether they will work even though mandates have boosted inoculation rates in other places. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
This photo from Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, shows Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly after an event in Topeka, Kan. The Democratic governor is suggesting that President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates will be difficult for the state to deal with and is questioning whether they will work even though mandates have boosted inoculation rates in other places. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
This photo from Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, shows Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly after an event in Topeka, Kan. The Democratic governor is suggesting that President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates will be difficult for the state to deal with and is questioning whether they will work even though mandates have boosted inoculation rates in other places. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

LAKE QUIVIRA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly argued Thursday that mandates like those from the federal government for vaccinating workers against COVID-19 “tend not to work,” as the Democrat’s made her first public statements on the rules heading into a difficult reelection campaign in her Republican-leaning state.

Kelly is top target among governors next year for Republicans nationally because Donald Trump twice carried Kansas by wide margins and President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates have roused conservative voters.

Her comments Thursday came during and after a Kansas City-area chambers of commerce lunch. She has faced criticism from Republicans and some labor-union members who oppose the mandates for not publicly opposing them after the Democratic president first announced them in September. Her staff has said she couldn’t comment until the state learned the details.

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“We have not mandated a vaccine in the state of Kansas. We have done everything we can to encourage people and to make it easy for folks to get vaccinated,” Kelly said. “I’ve lived in Kansas a long time and I understand that those kinds of things tend not to work.”

Mandates have increased vaccination rates elsewhere. In New York City, more than 90% of the municipal workers received COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of the city’s deadline Monday, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. And Tyson Foods, which has six Kansas facilities, reported that 60,000 workers got inoculated after it announced its mandate in early August, to bring their vaccination rate above 96%.

“Vaccine requirements work at this point in the pandemic. We have tried education, outreach and incentives,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner, said in a recent interview. “We need to end this this pandemic being a daily threat.”

But Republicans already have made Kelly’s restrictions on businesses early in the pandemic and her later support for mask mandates key issues in the governor’s race.

GOP Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who’s running to oust Kelly, promised by social media Thursday to sue the Biden administration over the mandate affecting the most workers. Spokesman C.J. Grover tweeted that Kelly’s comments showed that she and national Democratic Party officials “had enough time to digest Tuesday night’s results,” in which Republicans captured the Virginia governor’s office.

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Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature are having a panel — the joint Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates — look for ways for Kansas to resist Biden’s mandates. After two days of hearings last week, the committee is set to meet again next week and hopes to draft any proposals before Thanksgiving.

The loudest mandate critics include rank-and-file union members. But Andy Sanchez, the Kansas AFL-CIO’s executive secretary, said he thinks most unvaccinated members will meet the Jan. 4 deadline, though the Kansas AFL-CIO doesn’t track how many of its roughly 75,000 members are refusing the shots.

“Just as time went on, people became more comfortable and felt more safe about getting the vaccinations, not that there was anything to worry about in the first place,” Sanchez said.

Many mandate critics are calling on legislators to call themselves into special session to counter Biden’s mandates, rather than waiting until 2022. Kelly said she does not think a special legislative session “is due,” but lawmakers can call one themselves if two-thirds of them sign a petition.

Many critics view the mandates as violating people’s personal liberties.

“I think those are sort of buzz words around this,” Kelly said. “I think the real issue is, what do we do to get Kansans through this pandemic and help our businesses grow and thrive?”

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued new rules Thursday under which Americans working at companies with 100 or more employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or get tested for the virus weekly. The rules apply to about 84 million workers, and OSHA left open the possibility of expanding the requirement to smaller businesses.

Kelly expressed frustration that last year — when Trump was president — “were really literally told, ‘You are on your own.’”

“We took that and we basically developed systems and strategies that worked within our state, so at this point to have the federal government come in and say, ‘OK, now you all have to do if this way,’ is really tough to deal with,” she said.

Under a separate Biden mandate, 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from the Medicare and Medicaid programs also must get vaccinated and don’t have a testing option. Another Biden mandate applies the same tough rule to the employees of federal government contractors.

Schmidt already has brought Kansas into a federal lawsuit filed by multiple states against the requirement for government contractors.

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Hanna reported from Topeka, Kan. Andy Tsubasa Field in Topeka, Kan., also contributed.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna