Kansas has expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility. Here's what you need to know.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

As of Monday, Kansas has embarked on a significant expansion of vaccine eligibility, meaning an additional 600,000 residents are eligible for the shots, under the plan unveiled by Gov. Laura Kelly last week. 

Those ages 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions are eligible for the shots in many counties, after the state moved into a combined Phase 3 and Phase 4 of the state's vaccination plan, with the move also including more workers in essential fields.

Here is what you need to know about getting a vaccine under Phase 3 and Phase 4.

Topekan Tony Elias receives his first COVID-19 vaccine at the Topeka VA Tuesday afternoon.

Who is eligible under Phase 3 and Phase 4?

Eligible conditions under Phase 3 include cancer, Down syndrome, serious heart conditions, Type 2 diabetes and pregnancy, among others.

Conditions with slightly less risk fall into Phase 4. These include asthma, cystic fibrosis, liver disease, Type 1 diabetes, dementia and obesity.

More:Roughly 600,000 Kansans set to qualify for COVID-19 vaccine in major eligibility expansion

A KDHE spokesperson didn't explicitly respond to a request for comment as to how obesity would be defined, and instead pointed to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC defines obesity as a Body Mass Index of 30 or more. According to a report from the United Health Foundation, 35% of Kansans in 2019 would be deemed obese.

Other eligible individuals in Phase 4 include workers in certain sectors, including agriculture, utilities, government and social services, transportation and information technology.

Not all counties are handling eligibility the same way. Some are opening the floodgates, allowing individuals in all the categories to seek out a shot. Others are starting with individuals with pre-existing health conditions.

Other, more rural counties aren't pushing for more doses at all, said KDHE Secretary Lee Norman, because they have been ahead of the game in vaccinating their populations.

More:CDC: Kansas now 38th in nation for most COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per capita

Even in more populous areas, Norman said the capacity to meet the demand had increased, noting vaccine appointments may fill up in 12 hours for a given county whereas before it took only an hour.

"We hope the vaccination sites won't get overly flooded," he said during a virtual news briefing hosted by The University of Kansas Health System.

Do I need a doctor's note to prove my eligibility?

It was unclear initially whether individuals would need to provide proof of their ailments in order to get the shot, with fears about line jumpers still on the minds of some. But the Kansas Department of Health and Environment confirmed Monday this wouldn't be the case, with the state relying instead on the "honor system."

Many counties had already indicated they wouldn't require documentation of residents. Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, noted the state is in a far different place with vaccinations than it was in December, when only health care professionals and nursing home residents were getting the shots.

"It is becoming less and less important," he said.

In combining Phase 3 and Phase 4, Norman acknowledged there wasn't a "bright line" between the most serious conditions, such as cancer, and other illnesses, like diabetes.

What does the move mean for Kansans with disabilities?

The move to Phase 3 and Phase 4 means more Kansans with disabilities have access to the vaccine, something which will require a concerted effort to reduce potential barriers, advocates say.

Rocky Nichols, executive director of The Disability Rights Center of Kansas, pointed out that the move was a boon for Kansans with disabilities, many of whom are now eligible under the expansion.

Requiring residents get a doctor's note, he said, would have added another layer on top of a process that is often complicated for those with disabilities.

"They won't get vaccinated for months," Nichols said. "That's not good for them, or for society."

There are other barriers — often created unintentionally — with Nichols pointing to the size of the mass vaccination site at the Stormont Vail Events Center in Topeka, which runs "three football fields long" and can be difficult to navigate for those with mobility issues.

More mobile vaccination sites and even drive-through and in-home options would be a key option, he stressed.

"Keeping accessibility and disability at the forefront as everyone is thinking about 'How are we going to do this?' is important," Nichols said.

Where do we go from here?

Kriesel noted this week would serve as a "dry run" for the eligibility expansion. That's because the state is expected to receive a shipment of 100,000 Johnson & Johnson doses next week, something which state health officials believe will help ramp up vaccination efforts.

More:The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is coming to Kansas. Here's what you need to know.

Kriesel said the rapid uptick could prove tricky, particularly for smaller providers, but said the state had been working to work out the most efficient way to get doses where they need to go.

"We'll see if that breaks people," Kriesel said of the Johnson & Johnson shipment.

Norman said the state wasn't banking on a similar increase in Johnson & Johnson doses in the weeks to come. Even as more shots continue to flow in, vaccination sites would continue to need to come aboard, he said.

National Guard troops have continued to help out in Sedgwick County to distribute vaccines and Norman said KDHE was bringing aboard roughly two dozen contract nurses to help out at mass vaccination sites.

More:Did you already get the COVID-19 vaccine? Here's what Kansas officials say you can do

Even still, he said there was hope to move through Phase 3 and Phase 4 in the "next few weeks," potentially opening the door for an even more dramatic expansion.

"By April or even by May, it wouldn't surprise me if we opened it up to any willing recipient of the vaccine," Norman said.