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Some Kansas counties turn down COVID vaccine as demand slows



MISSION, Kan. — Some Kansas counties are rejecting new COVID-19 vaccine shipments or reducing their orders because of decreased demand for the drugs, worrying health officials who say mass vaccinations are the only path to a return to normalcy.

Dennis Kriesel, the executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said Friday that the shift occurred in the past couple weeks. The state opened up eligibility on March 29 to all residents 16 and older. That led to an increase in demand in mostly urban areas, but some rural counties already had begun to administer the vaccine to anyone of age who wanted one, Kriesel said.

Nearly four months into the vaccination effort, providers are beginning to run out of vaccine seekers even though only 35.9% of Kansas residents had been immunized as of Friday, state data shows.

“We always knew there would be a hesitancy factor that would kick in and we are starting to see that now,” Kriesel said, adding that some other states also are beginning to see more supply than demand. “So people are starting to come up with ways to address concerns, address misinformation and then encourage people who don’t really care that it would still be in their best interest to get a vaccine.”

Sixty out of several hundred health departments, pharmacies, hospitals and clinics that are administering COVID-19 vaccines in the state asked for a pause in shipments next week, said Marci Nielsen, a special advisor to Gov. Laura Kelly.

“We are at kind of at a transition that we predicted when there was this shortage of vaccine,” Nielsen said. “Now that we are having more vaccine come into the state and people who really wanted to get vaccinated have already gotten vaccinated, we are starting to see things slow down.”

She said the results of a newly completed survey found that the group that is the most hesitant in Kansas skews younger, female, less educated, lower income and slightly more rural than urban.

She said the research shows that older Kansans want to get information from their primary care providers. Younger residents are more swayed by friends and relatives who get vaccinated without having any adverse effects.

Pressure is mounting to move quickly after a third highly contagious variant was detected in the state this week.

“We are working in an environment where urgency is still a part of the equation and folks don’t fully recognize that we are in a bit of a race against the variants,” she said. “And it is important if you want to get vaccinated or want to learn more about it speed matters here.”

Kriesel said one thing that has been discussed is focusing vaccination efforts on older high school students.

In the Kansas City area, the 27,000 student Shawnee Mission School District, sent an email Friday to parents about optional vaccination clinics that will be offered during the school day at each of the high schools. Health officials in Johnson County, which is the state’s largest county, also are planning clinics for other districts in the area as case numbers nudge upward.

Kansas averaged 232 new confirmed or probable cases a day for the seven days ending Friday, according to state health department data. While there are far fewer new cases than there were in the fall, the rolling seven-day average has increased this week.

“Things can flip on a dime, unfortunately. We are not out of the woods,” said Elizabeth Holzschuh, an epidemiologist with the county’s health department, during a Facebook Live Thursday afternoon. “We were safer for five or six weeks, but we’re starting to creep up and we don’t know what next week will hold.”