From JOHN HANNA, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Kansas health officials on Wednesday tried to determine whether a variant of coronavirus could trigger a new outbreak in a minimal security state prison where inmates regularly work in surrounding communities.

The state’s Department of Health and Environment has been looking for variants of the coronavirus for weeks as the average number of new cases and deaths across the state has declined. The department has been increasingly scrutinized by lawmakers on how COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed and administered.

Democratic Governor Laura Kelly said during a Zoom call Wednesday with top leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature that there had been no COVID-19 cases at the Winfield Correctional Facility in the two weeks leading up to the current outbreak, which has left dozens sick have. She said the state was doing genomic testing to see if the outbreak was caused by newer variants of the virus, first discovered in the UK and South Africa.

“All of a sudden there was this rapid spread,” said Kelly.

Dr. State Department of Health chief Lee Norman said during an online briefing Tuesday with officials from the University of Kansas Health System that his agency is looking for outbreaks that appear to spread differently than what Kansas normally sees. He also said it is looking for cases where someone who has been vaccinated gets infected anyway, even though there has only been one so far.

Norman told reporters during a Statehouse press conference that they suspect a variant of coronavirus because dozens of people got sick in Winfield Prison in a matter of days, much faster than usual. But the state has yet to confirm the variant strains elsewhere, and prisons are particularly at risk for outbreaks that spread rapidly, with more than 5,600 cases among inmates and nearly 1,200 employees in Kansas.

Kansas’s COVID-19 numbers have improved significantly in the past few weeks.

The state averaged 2,251 new confirmed or probable cases per day in November and December, peaking at 2,767 in the seven days that ended November 18, according to the state health department. The state recorded an average of 1,301 new cases per day for the seven days through Wednesday.

Kansas recorded an average of 28 new deaths per day in November and December, and the average peaked at 53 per day for the seven days that ended January 1. In the seven days that ended Wednesday, the state average was 20 additional deaths per day.

The state health department added 3,262 cases since Monday, raising its pandemic to 272,517, or one case per 11 of the state’s 2.9 million residents. There were also 96 more COVID-19 deaths reported, bringing the state’s death toll to 3,718.

The State Department of Corrections reported that Winfield Prison had eight active cases among staff and 69 among its population of approximately 450 inmates as of Monday. The prison’s website, located about 50 miles south of Wichita, states that its inmates “do thousands of hours of community service for nonprofit organizations every year.”

Kelly announced last week that Kansas is starting its second phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, which include inmates along with others in group living situations, with key workers, and with those over the age of 65.

The Democratic governor continues to be heavily criticized by GOP lawmakers for vaccinating inmates. The Kansas Republican Party tweeted earlier this month, “Prioritize law-abiding Kansans first!”

But Norman cited the Winfield outbreak “another good example of why prisons are meeting places that need immunization.” He said food service workers put the virus in jail and then “brought it back to the community.”

“The prison is not an island,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are suggesting that mistakes by Kelly’s administration made it difficult for elderly Kansans to get vaccinated. Norman has pushed back, arguing in Tuesday’s briefing that the effort is going well.

Kansas had reported that it administered nearly 62% of the vaccine doses it received from the federal government. However, data from the state health ministry on Wednesday showed the percentage had dropped to 45%, largely due to the shipping of nearly 93,000 doses to pharmacy chains for nursing home residents and workers.

The state reported that 177,350 vaccine doses were administered out of 392,675 doses shipped. Approximately 149,000 people, or 5.1 percent of the population, received the two required vaccination shots.

Norman said that between 60% and 65% of nursing home residents and between 40% and 45% of their staff have been vaccinated, but he expects anyone who wants a vaccine will get it “within the next week or two”.

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