MISSION, Kan. — Kansas school districts are rushing to vaccinate their teachers in preparation for an eventual return to a full reopening of classrooms and before more a contagious strain of the coronavirus can spread throughout the state.
Gov. Laura Kelly told the State Finance Council on Wednesday that about 60% of the state's school districts have started vaccinating their teachers and staff. She discussed the push a day after the state Department of Education recommended that school districts allow middle and high school students resume full-time in-person instruction if precautions are taken. Several of the state's largest districts have been offering in-person classes only part-time or teaching students only online.
"The more we can get the vaccines in the arms of the folks who are teaching and taking care of our kids in our school buildings and daycare centers, the more likely we will be able to bring them back safely and let them continue in person," Kelly said.
The state is inoculating teachers as part of its second round of vaccinations, which also extended eligibility to people ages 65 and older, prisoners and essential workers such as law enforcement officers. But supply has been limited and the state's rollout has been lagging. As of Wednesday, 8.5% of the state's population had been vaccinated, with 248,977 people receiving at least the first of two required doses, state health data showed.
Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said teachers are eager to get vaccinated but are facing obstacles such as having to figure out where and how they can prove their eligibility, all while having to work a full school schedule.
A Fort Hays State University student was diagnosed last week with the so-called U.K. variant, though only one of the student's 200 potential contacts tested positive for COVID-19. Follow-up testing is underway to determine whether the student's sick contact has the same strain, which is more contagious.
The variant threatens to spoil a reprieve for exhausted doctors and nurses, who have seen the number of hospitalized patients fall to 450 this week from 718 two weeks ago, said Jon Rolph, a Wichita restaurant company CEO who is leading a regional COVID-19 reporting program for the state. He told the State Finance Council that the number of available intensive care unit beds also is rising and the length of time it takes to transfer a patient has dropped significantly in the past month.
The number of new cases hasn't been so low for months. Kansas' health department added 1,934 new confirmed cases from Monday to Wednesday, pushing the state's pandemic total to 284,894. It also added 106 more COVID-19 deaths, pushing the Kansas death toll to 4,303.
During a daily webcast, Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, also shared his concern about the possibility of another virus surge.
"Once things start warming up and spring starts to burst out, people will start to go out and gather a little bit more," he said. "I am a little nervous about that, especially because that could be when the (U.K.) variant is kind of really beginning to break out."