By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate will need to decide whether to confirm Janet Stanek, the acting director of the state health department, without a recommendation committee after some Republicans on the panel voiced concerns over her adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
It is unclear how Stanek will fare in the full Senate, but the decision Thursday by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee to make no recommendation — either for or against her — indicates some conservative displeasure with the Kelly administration’s handling of the pandemic.
The committee’s decision comes after a confirmation hearing Wednesday where conservative Republicans pressed Stanek about the CDC rules and the performance of the previous Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman.
Sen. Mike Thompson, a conservative Shawnee Republican, initially made an unsuccessful motion to refer the appointment to the Senate with a recommendation to reject. He said he could not let go of concerns that Stanek’s adherence to the CDC would lead to the same issues they had with Norman.
“Is she qualified to run an agency? Sure, but I have serious concerns about her ability to look outside institutional health and to make the decisions necessary to save lives in Kansas if she were facing a similar situation,” Thompson said. “To her own admission in admission yesterday, the pandemic’s not over, so what kind of things are we going to see going forward if there’s a spike in cases?”
The same panel grilled Stanek over COVID-19 conspiracy theories in January during her first formal appearance before the Legislature. If the Senate votes to reject Stanek’s appointment, she would have to step down from the position.
Stanek is a former senior vice president and chief operating officer for the Topeka-based Stormont Vail Health. She was appointed to her current role shortly after Norman’s resignation in November, for what he said was a lack of adherence to a tight, scripted message the governor’s office wanted to send.
Sen. Pat Pettey, who recommended advancing Stanek favorably, said the committee’s decision to not make a recommendation, was a disservice to Kansans. Being an armchair quarterback two and a half years later is easy, but the role requires someone who can see the whole picture and make decisions in the moment, the Kansas City Democrat said.
“We should not make our decisions based totally on what we think about certain beliefs concerning COVID because I would disagree with many of the statements that have been made,” Pettey said.
It is not yet clear when the Senate will vote on her confirmation.
Throughout the hearing Wednesday, Stanek was repeatedly asked how she would approach recommendations from the CDC regarding masks, vaccines and COVID-19 treatments.
Sen. Mark Steffen said KDHE ought to be more careful about labeling the vaccine safe and effective and worried Stanek would do so if directed by the CDC. The Hutchinson Republican and anesthesiologist is currently under investigation for prescribing ivermectin to patients as a treatment for COVID-19.
“When it comes to COVID shot, yeah, we talked about how KDHE was basically saying safe and effective, safe and effective, safe and effective when we have a CDC VAERS reporting system that ties 20,000-plus deaths and more complications to the shots than all the other vaccines combined,” Steffen said.
Stanek said she would follow primarily what the CDC recommends as is standard for most public health officers for local and state governments across the county. However, she did express a willingness to listen and make changes where appropriate.
For example, KDHE is currently in the process of revisiting television advertisements promoting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We have removed the TV ads and we are making sure that in reviewing all of our ads that if we do have an advertisement or something that might mention getting a vaccine that there is a link and we are encouraging people to follow up with their doctor,” Stanek said, reiterating that the CDC will remain the point of reference.
The CDC reports that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, beyond common side effects like muscle pain. The four serious side effects linked to the vaccine — anaphylaxis, thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, myocarditis and pericarditis and Guillain-Barré Syndrome — are rare. Reports to VAERS comes from doctors, hospitals and members of the public, and the CDC notes that not all reactions are caused by the vaccination.
New department priorities
If confirmed as the new secretary, Stanek said chief priorities would include rebuilding trust in the department by increasing transparency, increased communication with state legislators and engaging with stakeholders to address current and future issues.
As a testament to her willingness to engage with legislators, Stanek pointed out that she had sat down with each legislator on the panel in the weeks leading up to the confirmation hearing. She said intergovernmental collaboration would go a long way to improve the future of public health in Kansas.
“I’ve dedicated my life to my profession and improving the health and safety of my community,” Stanek said. “Because of my experiences and as an executive and nonprofit volunteer, I believe I am uniquely qualified to lead the state’s third largest agency… and the millions of people it serves every day.”
Other priorities she noted include managing the department’s fiscal situation, improving staffing and resource infrastructure and making strides in workforce retention and development.
In addition to working at Stormont Vail, Stanek served as director of the State Employee Health Benefits Program and as chairwoman of the Kansas Health Institute board of directors. She has held a health care leadership position for the past 35 years in Kansas, Pennsylvania and New York.