President Joe Biden has announced new COVID vaccine mandates. Here's what it means for Kansas.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

Kansas officials are largely skeptical of efforts from President Joe Biden's administration to step up COVID-19 vaccine requirements, with the new, aggressive plan expected to have far reaching impacts on the state and its workforce.

That includes a new mandate that workers at large companies either get the shot or be subjected to weekly testing requirements. It is the centerpiece of Biden's blueprint to curb the spread of the virus, with states like Kansas seeing a rise in case in recent weeks after months of relative calm.

There are still many questions about core pieces of Biden's plan. The announcement also included a requirement that staff at hospitals participating in the Medicaid and Medicare programs get the shots, as well as efforts to expand testing availability.

More:Who's covered by Biden's new vaccine mandates? When do they go into effect? Here's what we know.

In a speech Thursday, Biden said that with the new rules "we can and we will turn the tide on Covid-19."

“We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” he said. “We’re going to reduce the spread of Covid-19 by increasing the share of the work force that is vaccinated in businesses all across America.”

Will Kansas officials challenge the Biden administration mandates?

Attorney General Derek Schmidt signaled Friday a lawsuit was forthcoming over a new proposal from President Joe Biden to require workers at large, private-sector employers be vaccinated.

But his plan was met with instant from Kansas Republicans, who pointed to past comments from the president where he insisted the federal government should not institute any sort of vaccine mandates.

Biden's proposals will likely be challenged in court, particularly the requirement that workers at companies with over 100 employees be vaccinated or be tested for COVID-19 weekly.

There is not yet a timeframe for when the rule will be released by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and when workers at private companies might have to comply. Businesses that do not comply with the directive will face “substantial fines” of up to $14,000.

More:Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt vows to ‘vigorously challenge’ Biden's vaccine mandate for private workers

But Attorney General Derek Schmidt signaled Friday a lawsuit was forthcoming over that order.

"President Biden yesterday scolded ‘this is not about freedom,’ but the rule of law most certainly is," Schmidt said in a statement. "If the president's overreaching rhetoric becomes federal action, then rest assured we will vigorously challenge it."

A cadre of Republican governors and attorneys general have vowed to push back on the plan. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has even said he is considering calling a special session to push back against Biden's actions.

GOP legislative leaders in Kansas have also objected to the requirements, with top state senators vowing to "oppose this unconstitutional overreach by every means available."

While some legislators have mulled the idea of a special session related to school mask mandates in recent weeks, it is not clear if such a response is also being considered in light of Biden's announcement. A spokesperson for Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said specifics were still "being discussed."

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, advocated for a special session in Kansas as well but acknowledged it would be an uphill battle. Gov. Laura Kelly would need to call such a meeting — an unlikely proposition — or two-thirds of members would need to move to recall legislators to Topeka.

But he echoed his GOP colleagues in advocating for action.

"We probably need to look at something and see if we can stop this out of control craziness," Hilderbrand, chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said.

For her part, a spokesperson for Kelly said the governor would continue to make COVID-19 decisions "based on science, not politics" and was reviewing the new proposals.

"As this announcement will impact many Kansans, we are still waiting on additional guidance on what this plan means for our residents and our administration needs to thoroughly review it further before we comment on specifics," Sam Coleman, the governor's communications director, said in a statement.

Kansas business community cool to vaccine requirement

Two-thirds of workers nationally would be affected by Biden's private sector vaccine mandate, which requires employees for large, private companies to get the shot.

Two-thirds of workers nationally would be affected by Biden's private sector vaccine mandate, although it is unclear how many Kansas employees would be affected by the announcement.

And while many large companies nationally, ranging from Wal-Mart to United Airlines, most of Kansas' largest employers do not appear to have instituted any sort of vaccine requirement. A notable exception is Tyson Foods, which reached an agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers on a vaccine requirement earlier this month.

More could be set to join them. Biden's rules also require the vaccine for federal workers and employees at private companies doing business with the federal government. That would implicate firms like Cessna, the Wichita-based aviation manufacturer which has active contracts worth millions of dollars with the U.S. Department of Defense.

While news stories have often focused on vaccine mandate opponents who insist they will quit if a requirement is imposed, there is not yet widespread data on how the policies might impact labor outcomes.

Donna Ginther, director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas, said there may well be individuals who don't want to work somewhere they will be forced to test or get the vaccine.

But she added they would likely be dwarfed by others who view the requirement as a way of ensuring a safer workplace, something which could push those hesitant to look for a job back into the labor market. Kansas saw a decline in labor force participation last month amid the Delta variant spread.

"Some people are making the calculation that some jobs aren't worth dying for," Ginther said.

Biden's proposal was met with a tepid response from the state's business community.

Alan Cobb, CEO of the Kansas Chamber, said the group and its members "believe in the right of employers to determine their own policies for employees."

"In the case of requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, regardless of the level of government, businesses should neither be required nor prevented from requiring the vaccination," Cobb said in a statement.

Kansas hospitals implicated by new rules also

If the new mandate is not struck down in court, it also could come at an inconvenient time for vaccine providers in Kansas.

Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said providers are currently planning for an onslaught of residents seeking their booster doses next month, with some counties even pondering a return to mass vaccination clinics.

More:'There's only so many hours in the day': Rising COVID-19 cases challenge Kansas, county contact tracing efforts

Adding a rise in Kansans having to get jabbed for work could complicate that even further, although he noted there are more places administering the vaccinations than there were six months prior.

"We do expect that there'll be a big increase in the workload, though it might not be as bad as the winter," Kriesel said.

Hospital staff at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid will have to be vaccinated under a new proposal from President Joe Biden's administration. Some, like Stormont Vail in Topeka, already announced vaccination requirements previously.

Health officials would be impacted by another one of Biden's rules as well: a requirement that hospital workers at facilities participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs be vaccinated. Those which resist would threaten their status and eligibility for federal funding tied to those initiatives.

In Kansas, many of the largest hospital systems have already required the vaccine. That includes Stormont Vail Hospital, the University of Kansas Health System, Ascension Via Christi and LMH Health, among others.

But smaller facilities, including home health agencies and other programs covered by the order, will be forced to make changes.

Cindy Samuelson, a spokesperson for the Kansas Hospital Association, said the group was still reviewing the order and awaiting finer details, like any potential religious exemptions.

Because of the mandate's scope, Samuelson said it was unlikely most nurses or health care staff would be able to move to an unvaccinated employer.

More:Biden's COVID-19 mandate to vaccinate all health care workers may come with unintended consequences

"If everybody has to do it, then you're a nurse, you're going to say, 'Okay, now I'll a carpenter.' You've changed your career, maybe," she said. "But you're not going to be able to go nurse somewhere else."

Other employees in maintenance, business and other fields might be more free to move on if they do not wish to be vaccinated, something which could be of particular challenge for small critical access hospitals in rural areas.

But conversely, Samuelson said, the order could give cover for those smaller facilities who wanted to mandate the shots but were unsure of the potential fallout.

"We have (hospital) systems that have kind of already went down this path already," she said. "And we have some that weren't ready to do that yet or maybe even ever, because they were concerned about being able to continue to have the workforce they needed."

Biden administration aims to boost testing capacity

Part of a plan from President Joe Biden's administration to fight COVID-19 is a sweeping effort to expand COVID-19 testing capacity, with demand for tests increasing in Kansas and nationally as schools return to session.

Lost in the shuffle in Biden's announcement was a sweeping effort to expand COVID-19 testing capacity, with demand for tests increasing in Kansas and nationally as schools return to session.

The plan would invoke the Defense Production Act, with billions of point-of-care and at-home tests to be made by private manufacturers and used for community testing. They also would be distributed to prisons, homeless shelters and nursing homes. At home tests would also be more cheaply available at Wal-Mart and Kroger stores.

Testing rates in Kansas remain below the national average. The state ran 148.7 tests per 100,000 residents, the sixth lowest rate nationally, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, although the rate is higher than it was just weeks earlier.

A variety of institutions handle testing. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment still runs many testing events and local health care providers and county health departments chip in.

More:Vaccine opponents protest outside Stormont Vail following hospital's shot requirement for employees

The increased supply of tests is good news, Kriesel said, as some local health officials have had a hard time getting their hands on the testing supplies for two of the most common rapid tests.

And with school back in session, many families are looking to negative tests as a way of getting their child out of quarantine requirements. Likewise, many districts are using rapid testing as a way of monitoring for COVID-19 outbreaks.

"The testing demands been so much higher with the schools back in session," Kriesel said. "And so many exposures have happened at schools that I think there's sort of been a run on tests."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.