Fact checking why the Overland Park Convention Center is not being used as a vaccination site

Johnson County officials say they explored the possibility of using the Overland Park Convention Center as a mass vaccination site but decided against it, in part, because using the space for vaccinations would have required canceling previously scheduled events and shows. The county has since subleased space in an empty warehouse in Lenexa that will start hosting mass vaccinations Tuesday. File photo.

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With the prospect of COVID vaccine doses becoming more widely available in coming weeks and Kansas announcing it would make people in Phases 3 and 4 eligible for vaccines starting March 22, local officials are sorting through how best to get the most people vaccinated in the shortest amount of time.

This week, disagreements over the potential use of a prominent facility in Overland Park as a mass vaccination site erupted into a tense exchange of emails between city councilmembers.

In the email chain, Councilmember Faris Farassati, who is a candidate for Overland Park mayor this year, accused the city of being misleading in how it characterized its response to his suggestion earlier this year that the Overland Park Convention Center be offered for the county’s use in coronavirus vaccinations.

“This pandemic will end, but the people of Overland Park will remember the administrative incompetence and lack of transparency,” Farassati wrote.

Overland Park City Councilmember Faris Farassati has pushed the idea of using the Overland Park Convention Center as a mass vaccination site since Johnson County’s vaccine rollout began in January. File photo.

But Councilmember Paul Lyons responded, saying Farassati is being misleading as a way of ginning up support for his mayoral campaign.

“You are only focused on finding fault and stirring up potential voters using misinformation and outrageous claims. Please stop this nonsense,” Lyons wrote.

The email chain lasted throughout the day Wednesday and also included City Manager Bill Ebel, Mayor Carl Gerlach and Councilmember Scott Hamblin. Several members of Kansas City area media were also CC’d on the emails.

To be clear, neither side says using the convention center for vaccinations is a bad idea. Instead, the disagreement has been about the particulars of the city’s response – whether and when the city offered the center to the county for mass vaccinations and whether it was the county or the city that decided against it.

For their part, county officials say a Lenexa warehouse ultimately picked to host vaccinations offers a cheaper, more flexible space with fewer logistical challenges than the Overland Park Convention Center would have posed.

A push to use the convention center

The idea of mass vaccinations has been a frequent discussion point raised by Farassati ever since Johnson County’s vaccine rollout to the general public began in January.

At first, the county emphasized more, smaller vaccine sites because only a limited number of people — primarily health care workers and people 80 years and older — qualified for the early doses. But that philosophy changed soon after, as more people became eligible to be vaccinated.

Farassati’s calls to use the convention center as a vaccination venue were given added urgency after the county experienced logistical problems on the first day of its mass vaccine clinic at Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee. On that day, seniors over 80 were left to wait outside in subfreezing temperatures and navigate an icy parking lot.

The county quickly adjusted its procedures and its mass vaccine clinics have run more efficiently in the time since, but Farassati has continued to lobby for opening the Overland Park Convention Center as a vaccination site.

With the pace of vaccine supply coming from the state through the federal government expected to pick up in coming weeks, the Johnson County Commission earlier this month decided to sublease space at an unused building in Lenexa once occupied by Dimensional Innovations, an Overland Park design firm.

Johnson County vaccine FAQ
For weeks, Johnson County health officials have hosted mass vaccine clinics at least three days a week at Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee. Image courtesy the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

The county will temporarily sublease the space at 15500 W. 108th Street for $384,000 for the year or a minimum of $192,000 after six months. Vaccinations there are expected to begin on Tuesday.

Johnson County’s public health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., said the Lenexa site will enable health workers to vaccinate more people as more vaccine becomes available and the next tiers of eligibility open up. Kansas is moving to Phases 3 and 4 of its statewide vaccine rollout plan Monday.

As the county announced its decision, facilities management director Brad Reinhardt explained that he’d been told the Overland Park Convention Center could not accommodate the county’s needs. Although business at the convention center has slowed during the pandemic, Reinhardt said there are still at least 100 scheduled events on the books this year, posing potential logistical conflicts with a vaccine clinic.

But Farassati and Hamblin said the pandemic has created a public health emergency that should have made vaccinations the top priority for the center, regardless of the bookings.

“The rest of the country is successfully using convention centers for vaccine deployment while the doors of our taxpayer funded facility remain closed!” Farassati wrote.

He asked the city to take back its “short-sighted” decision and issue an apology.

The convention center’s operating money comes primarily from the fees it charges the trade shows and meeting organizers. But the pandemic has hit the hospitality industry hard.

Once the coronavirus outbreak got underway, shows and events all but ceased, leaving the convention center with projections of nearly $3 million in losses and a potential shortfall that would be filled from the city’s general fund.

What city officials say

Lyons, Gerlach, Ebel and Councilmember Curt Skoog, who has also announced his candidacy for mayor this year, all take issue with Farassati and Hamblin’s contention.

They say convention center management never refused the county’s request. Instead, convention center officials provided answers to a number of questions from the county about times and space available, but then the county chose another option after evaluating several possible venues.

Ebel said the city had been in talks with the county as early as last summer to coordinate possible vaccine locations.

Brett Mitchell, general manager of the convention center, was later asked for details and told county officials that having a vaccination site there would mean terminating existing contracts for events, which would require action by the full city council.

The county then dropped the discussions and began looking for other sites, Mitchell said.

Lyons said cost wasn’t the issue, since money to host a mass vaccination site could have come from federal coronavirus relief funds the city has received. But he noted the convention center would have had to drop everything on its schedule to operate exclusively as a vaccination site.

Also, many more places around Johnson County — including local hospitals and retail pharmacies — are giving vaccines now, and more will be opening as the federal government expands locations, he said.

Gerlach, who is not running for re-election, chided Farassati for the “political gamesmanship that you’re playing to try to tear down a top rated city in the nation, by using mistruths and misinformation so you can run for a political position. Shame on you. Our citizens are smarter than that and will see through your untrue actions.”

Skoog was not a part of the email thread, but weighed in when asked by the Shawnee Mission Post.

He said the empty building in Lenexa the county chose could better accommodate people with limited mobility anyway. The convention center is on two levels with the main access to the second floor by escalator and parking across the street.

It is not well designed for events with large numbers of people in wheelchairs and with walkers, he said. The Dimensional Innovations building is one floor with convenient parking, Skoog said.

What the county says

Negotiations for a mass vaccination site have been ongoing for months.

Assistant County Manager Joe Connor said the county management team held regular calls with city leaders for weeks and informally discussed specifications for future vaccination sites.

The Overland Park Convention Center was identified early on as a possible mass vaccine site, and Connor said Overland Park officials were always open to offering the city’s time and resources.

Johnson County vaccine hub
The warehouse at 15500 W. 108th St. in Lenexa is more than 60,000 square feet, though the county only plans to use about 45,000 square feet of that for ongoing vaccine clinics starting March 23. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

It was early February when the talks became more specific. By then the county had identified its top priorities for a mass clinic site – size and flexibility of operating hours.

With more people becoming eligible and more vaccine doses in the pipeline, the county needed a good centrally located space, Connor said. And Johnson County Park and Recreation District sites like Okun Fieldhouse have limited hours because of previously-scheduled games and activities during evenings and weekends.

“We needed a facility to have total control over start to finish,” Connor said.

When county officials asked, they found that kind of flexibility wasn’t going to be possible at the convention center, where even a three-day weekend event requires days of set-up prior to opening.

Furthermore, the Lenexa warehouse turned out to be the “lowest cost option” of several facilities that were considered, the county’s deputy director of facilities management Nicolle Welsh told the commission earlier this month.

Overland Park never turned the county down, Connor said. They answered questions about what could and couldn’t be done, and the county decided not to pursue it further.

For a few months of vaccinations, Connor said, “We didn’t feel it was the best fit for us.”

Dimensional Innovations’ Lenexa building, on the other hand, is “ideal” because it is vacant now that the company moved those operations elsewhere, he said.

The county can have total control and also the possibility of expanding operations there if it needs to, he said.