TOPEKA — A top Republican legislator in Kansas was hospitalized last month after testing positive for the novel coronavirus and didn’t disclose it to colleagues until this week. The state’s Democratic governor declared Thursday that she’ll get tested because the two of them attended a meeting together after he was hospitalized.
Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr.’s delayed acknowledgment of his hospitalization — in an email to fellow House Republicans after Tuesday’s primary — concerned colleagues, particularly Democrats. Gov. Laura Kelly called his decision to attend a July 29 meeting at the Statehouse "reckless and dangerous."
Ryckman, from the Kansas City area, is the highest-ranking official in Kansas known to have been infected. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma tested positive last month.
Ryckman said in an interview that he tested positive on July 13, began showing symptoms that evening and was hospitalized for about a week starting July 16. He said he remained isolated, both at home and in the hospital and was cleared by a doctor to attend of the State Finance Council on July 29. The governor and eight top legislative leaders make up the council, and state law has required it to review orders from Kelly to deal with the pandemic.
"I was hospitalized, have followed doctor’s orders, and self-isolated during that time," Ryckman, a Kansas City-area Republican, said in his email to colleagues. "I am now past what doctors consider the contagious stage and am on the road to recovery."
Ryckman's disclosure roiled Kansas politics immediately after it was first reported Thursday by the Sunflower State Journal. Kelly spokesman Sam Coleman said the governor’s office "was not aware" of Ryckman’s positive test and that Kelly will get tested "as soon as we can set it up."
The governor said she wishes Ryckman good health and is glad he is recovering but added that she was "dismayed" to learn that he’d been infected.
"Speaker Ryckman's decision to attend the State Finance Council meeting after being released from the hospital, while concealing his diagnosis from those of us in the room and taking his mask off, was reckless and dangerous," Kelly said in a statement. "As elected officials, we have a unique responsibility to set the right example for the people of Kansas, and to follow the commonsense guidance from medical experts."
Ryckman later accused Kelly in a tweet of "fear mongering and public shaming" and said he'd told people with whom he'd been in contact. He said his personal precautions went beyond state and federal COVID-19 guidelines and that he opted to share his story more broadly later to "help reduce the stigma" faced by people who’ve been infected.
The Governor’s public response to my personal experience with COVID is fear mongering and public shaming. I informed everyone I came into contact with & took precautions far beyond CDC & KDHE guidelines. Today, I opted to share my story more broadly. Here are the facts. #ksleg pic.twitter.com/jDCN2nuutN
— Speaker Ryckman (@RonRyckman) August 7, 2020
Kansas saw its reported coronavirus cases reach nearly 30,000 as of Wednesday after increasing almost 93% in July, according to state health department statistics. The state also is reporting 368 COVID-19-related deaths.
The University of Kansas is requiring all students, faculty and staff returning to its campuses in Lawrence and the Kansas City area to take a free COVID-19 test before the fall semester begins Aug. 24, The Lawrence Journal-World reported. Meanwhile, health officials in Wabaunsee County west of Topeka are encouraging anyone who attended the county fair on July 24-27 to monitor themselves for symptoms because one person who attended tested positive.
Kelly and Republican lawmakers have been at odds for months over how best to check the spread of the coronavirus, with the GOP preferring to allow local officials make decisions because the number of reported cases per 1,000 residents continues to vary widely. After weeks of complaints that Kelly was moving too slowly to reopen the state's coronavirus-battered economy, she lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26.
The state's 105 counties now set the rules and most have opted of a July 2 order from Kelly requiring people to wear masks in public. Also, the Republican-controlled State Board of Education blocked a plan from Kelly to delay the reopening of public and private K-12 schools from mid-August until after Labor Day, leaving the start of fall classes to 286 locally elected school boards.
Kansas House Democrats reacted angrily to the news of Ryckman's coronavirus infection, tweeting on their official account that he had "knowingly putting lives at risk."
"Not alerting every member of the House and Senate is indefensible," they tweeted. "He must be held accountable for his negligence."
And Heather Scanlon, chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer, sent The Associated Press a July 29 text that said was in response to news from a staffer that Ryckman intended to phone into the Finance Council meeting. She asked whether Ryckman was doing OK, and the reply was, "Oh he’s doing fine."
Scanlon tweeted back, "Oh ok good. I heard he had covid." She got no reply to that message, she said.
Ryckman said he was notified July 10 by phone by that he'd been in contact with someone who might have the virus and began self-isolating. He said that person did not have coronavirus, and his family also did not get infected.
As for the House Democrats' criticism of him, Ryckman said in a text to The AP that he understands that the unknowns surrounding COVID-19 "make people uncomfortable."
"That’s why I listened to my doctor for my medical care and clearance before end(ing) self-isolating," he said.