Q&A with Laura Kelly: Governor talks COVID-19 impact on KS, progress in reopening state
At the start of Phase 1.5 in the governor's gradual plan to reopen the Kansas economy, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly sat down with Eyewitness News anchor Michael Scwhanke for a segment on "Right Now with Michael Schwanke," airing at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 18. The governor addresses the upcoming meeting with President Donald Trump, economic challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, including issues with the Kansas Department of Labor, COVID-19 testing in Kansas, positive cases in southwest Kansas connected with meat packing plants, and how she came to the decision to slow the reopening process by implementing Phase 1.5, holding off looser restrictions with Phase 2 for another two weeks.
Gov. Kelly, thank you for being with us. I want to start with the trip to DC. What's the goal?
I think the goal is twofold: One, to discuss with the president what's going on here in Kansas and the second is to encourage him to provide some relief to state and local governments.
Is this a one on one meeting with the president or other governors?
I think there will be one other governor, and in terms of the meeting, it will be the three of us. I don't think it's different from what he's done in the past, like with the governor of Colorado along with the governor of North Dakota. I’m assuming it will be similar to that.
I know you've spoken to Vice President Mike Pence. What would be your priority in trying to get across to the president that Kansas needs most?
Kansas, right now, we need testing and PPE and that support. But I think as we go forward into the recovery phase, it truly is the revenue back-fill. When we went through the recession, the federal government gave the states a fair chunk of change so we could back-fill the revenue shortfalls. We were able to avoid devastating cuts to education and infrastructure, to Medicaid. We need that kind of help, and in fact, more than this time. And it goes down deep to our local units of government. They fund police, fire, sanitation workers. We do need that kind of help. There's no way the states can make up those kind of shortfalls.
Initially it was all about the medical side of this virus and now it's economic?
It truly is. You can't disentangle those two at this point, but the stimulus money we've received was to be used for COVID-related expenses. We cannot use that to back fill revenue shortfalls. We need another stimulus package to allow us to back-fill.
At one point we were last in the nation with testing. Were do we stand now?
I don't think we're last in nation and we've ramped up testing. We're interested in doing population sampling so we can get a sense of where this virus is, give us a clearer idea of what's safe. I think we're making great strides. Do we need to do more? Yes.
Can you give an idea of a timeline on when you would like to see random sampling?
Last month, ASAP. We have done some down in Finney county, so we have done some but not the amount we need to do to know how prevalent the virus is across the state of Kansas.
You mentioned southwest Kansas. Will you talk to the president about that?
We did get a lot of help from the federal government with the meat packing plants in southwest Kansas and Lyon County. The CDC essentially brought a SWAT team in and we had folks on the ground to set up and get the testing done. We were able to establish housing around the meat packing plants because folks didn't have a place to quarantine if they tested positive. The CDC was terrific, and the Department of Children and Families and eight volunteers (were there) to provide that housing safety factor.
Let's talk about (Phase) 1.5. How did you get there and was that in your initial plans?
NO, not specifically 1.5, but it's always been in our plans to evaluate the data, and so that's how we felt comfortable giving back local control. As we were going through the two-week period, we really did see one trend that was concerning. We did things (where) crowds can be controlled, or social distancing or use of PPE (is practiced) like in your barber shop. we were not comfortable (opening businesses) like theaters, bars and nightclubs.
I want to talk about concerns from business owners. Some feel the goal post was moved on them.
I think the only area would be bars and nightclubs. The community centers, I don't think they've been concerned, but they’re not private and need customers. If we go back to Phase One, the other thing we look at is data in other states or worldwide. It was startling to watch what happened in South Korea. They opened up bars and nightclubs and they had a spike. We don't ignore that, and we saw that and we need to collect more data and see if restrictions are workings, the testing. If all that's working, then we will feel more comfortable.
You mention data, and one question we get is, why the state doesn't track current hospitalizations and current virus numbers statewide.
There's a lot of data out there. I think what you're talking about is the cases recovered. That's a hard number to track. I think we could just take the number of tests we've done and the number of positive cases we've had, and (the) number of people released and we could come up with some information that would make people feel they're getting more data. (KDHE) Secretary (Lee) Norman said when he was asked that question, ("if) you've had it and you're still alive then you've recovered."
i want to talk about (the Kansas Department of Labor). Do you feel you're getting a handle on getting the people the money they need?
Getting a handle on it...I know people are frustrated, and I know the system is antiquated and the system has not been able to respond to the demand. Not only did we see a huge spike, from the lowest unemployment numbers in decades to the highest ever, that was not something any system could handle. The other thing, the good news (is that) the federal government came in with an extra $600 a week for folks. They are now allowing for people who are self-employed, they didn't administer that from a federal level. We had to build platform and that's why the delays occurred. Fifty states had to build platforms.
I want to talk about hospitals. Are you in constant contact with the hospitals?
They are required to send that data in, as a group they went all in. Wen elective surgeries were canceled, that was voluntarily, we didn't mandate that. They recognized that to build more beds for COVID-19, they would have to do that. And we've never been close to maxed out because of the work they did. A lot of them are starting to open up again, and I'm confident that they are doing that with knowledge of what they might need with COVID-19.
Let's look ahead to Phase Two. Do you have confidence we will get there?
I do. I will always caveat this with, we will always look at the data (in) deciding if it's safe to move forward. I'm optimistic with the trends we've been seeing and (the) response from Kansans -- they are staying home when they can, washing their hands and doing social distancing -- we know it works. If they continue to act as responsibly as they have, I'm optimistic we can increase mass gathering limit and open up additional venues.
What challenges do you see over the summer?
As we go over the recovery phases, we will also plan for a fall surge, that’s anticipated. I hope it doesn’t happen, but we have to plan for it. As we move toward economic recovery, we’ll also be planning for a fall outbreak so that we can put back in place the guidelines and restrictions that got us out of it this time.