LAKE QUIVIRA, Kan. — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly argued Thursday that mandates like those imposed by the federal government for vaccinating workers against COVID-19 "tend not to work," the Democrat's first public statements on the rules heading into a difficult reelection campaign in her Republican-leaning state.
Her comments during a Kansas City-area chambers of commerce lunch were her first public statements on the vaccine mandates. She's 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.
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. GOP lawmakers previously attacked Kelly for months over her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and Republicans are likely to make that and Biden's mandates key issues in the governor's race next year.
"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 in other places. 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.
"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."
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.
Many mandate critics are calling on legislators to call themselves into special session to counter Biden's mandates, rather than waiting until 2022. While Kelly could call a special session, she isn't expected to do so. But lawmakers can do it if two-thirds of them sign a petition.
Kelly said she does not think a special session "is due," but added: "We will do everything we can to ensure that this works for Kansas."
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.
"OSHA just this morning released a 490 page document. I'm not going to pretend to have read it," Kelly said. "I'm not sure that there are going to be a lot of ways that we can design this to work for Kansas. Give me a little bit of time to work on it and we will see what we can do."
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.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican hoping to unseat Kelly in next year's governor's race, already has brought Kansas into a federal lawsuit filed by multiple states against the requirement for government contractors.