By Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith
Tribune News Service
TOPEKA — Freshman state Sen. Mike Thompson adapted his philosophy on delivering forecast of dangerous weather to accommodate a critique of Gov. Laura Kelly’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Thompson, the retired chief meteorologist in Kansas City, Kan., appointed to a Senate seat after resignation of a Johnson County Republican, said Kelly’s orders to close schools and limit gatherings of people broke a fundamental rule of warning psychology.
“There’s a reason that you don’t scream fire in a crowded theater,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a lot of people now who are sitting at home who are watching the news media, watching these reports, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom. It doesn’t give our citizens a clear view of what is happening.
“For us to limit access of everyone to schools, to business, I think is inciting a panic that is unnecessary. This is not the Ebola virus,” he said.
His perspective emerged from Sunday to Thursday that featured county, state and federal restrictions designed to slow spread of COVID-19, which as of Sunday had infected at least 65 and killed two in Kansas. The Capitol Insider, a podcast of the Topeka Capital-Journal, offers a diverse sample of virus-related commentary during the five-day span.
Kelly said she would be guided by health and emergency professionals who understood the painful reality of pandemics.
“As governor,” she said, “I pledge to be honest and direct with the people of Kansas even when the news is difficult. Make no mistake, we are staring down some long-term challenges.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, said she rejected pressure from the House to abruptly shut down the 2020 session of the Legislature.
“Let’s not let fear cause us to make irrational decisions,” Wagle said. “Leaders do not run from danger.”
Lawmakers stayed until Thursday to pass a budget, highway plan and restrictions on the governor despite bipartisan pleas from legislators to abide by public health advisories and vacate the Capitol.
Physician Steven Stites, a top doctor at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan., took to the airwaves with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to address public anxiety and repeat prevention recommendations.
“We know a majority of people who get infected by this virus are going to survive,” he said. “We also know that over 80% of patients who get this virus are going to be able to stay home and never come into the hospital.”
His cautionary appendix: “What we are afraid of in health care is if the rate of the rise in new cases is so great that it could overwhelm the health care delivery system.”
State Rep. Michael Capps, R-Wichita, offered seething remarks about an emergency bill exempting K-12 public schools from a law requiring students to receive 1,100 hours of instruction annually. He believes the state spends too much on education and might be able to reopen schools in June or July.
“Now,” Capps said, “the schools are coming to us because of this virus and saying it may prevent them from being able to educate our children (and) fulfilling their one and only obligation. Our state deserves better. Our taxpayers demand better.”
Rep. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, said Capps’ argument was ridiculous.
“It’s a little asinine to assume that this is something that’s being requested to somehow bail our schools out,” he said.
State Sen. Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, said the Kansas economy was being jeopardized by exaggeration. He said the flu was worse than coronavirus.
“Folks, we can’t stop living,” he said. “We can’t dig a hole and live in it. We’ve got to get out. We’ve got to get engaged. We need to lead. We can’t overreact.”
Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, said Kelly would face election rejection following her “jump-the-gun” order to shutter schools. He also was frustrated with business closures, especially the casinos.
“I don’t want anybody to die,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to get this virus, but we can’t close this country down.”
Moran, the U.S. senator from Kansas, delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., by evoking bipartisanship favored by former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, also a Republican. Moran sits at the Senate desk that was once Dole’s.
Moran begged for decency in government through the crisis.
“Set aside the usual bickering and political posturing that takes place in the United States Congress,” he said. “No American can feel well, no American can feel that things are going to be OK if they don’t see leadership and cooperation among us.”
State Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, voted to limit the governor’s emergency powers and alleged Kelly might be conspiring to conceal information about the virus.
“If this be the case, let’s be open and transparent about the severity of this situation,” Jacobs said. “We are Kansans. We don’t trust in fear, but in God. Don’t keep us in the dark.”
In response, state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said the health crisis demanded people rely on reason. Coronavirus is causing illness and death and will generate economic hardship touching all Kansans, he said.
“It’s not a time for politics. Now is the time to reach out for compromise, cooperation, collaboration. Ad astra per aspera.”