Coronavirus and the States: Judges Block Abortion Bans; Governors Push Back on Trump Testing Claims

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Coronavirus and the States: Judges Block Abortion Bans; Governors Push Back on Trump Testing Claims
Stateline Mar31
Executive Director Chrisse France talks last month about Preterm, a busy abortion clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Judges in the state overturned coronavirus-related abortion restrictions.
Tony Dejak/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

Yesterday, judges overturned temporary coronavirus-related abortion prohibitions in Alabama, Ohio and Texas. The decisions may have implications for similar bans in Iowa, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where governors designated abortions nonessential.

At least 32 states ordered hospitals and other medical facilities to postpone nonessential surgeries to ease demand for personal protective equipment and other medical supplies during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association.

Several obstetrics and gynecology medical groups issued a statement asking states not to categorize abortion as nonessential. "Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive health care,” the statement said.

The cases decided in Alabama, Ohio and Texas were brought by Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups. Similar cases are pending in Iowa and Oklahoma.

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Governors Tell Trump Tests Still Lacking

One million Americans have now been tested for coronavirus, President Donald Trump said.

But long wait times for results remain an issue. In California, where some have waited eight days for results, health care workers are unsure about whether they have been exposed to the virus, with little guidance on whether they should still come into work while results are pending, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The problem is a bottleneck at commercial laboratories, which have been unable to speed up processing amid a deluge of samples from all over the country.

Though Trump claimed that testing is no longer an issue, some state leaders disputed that on a conference call with the president, according to media reports.

“Literally we are one day away, if we don’t get test kits from the CDC, that we wouldn’t be able to do testing in Montana," said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, according to the New York Times.

And Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said the lack of testing has officials "guessing" about the state of the outbreak, the Times reported.

Florida's lack of testing remains an issue, and GOP U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said the outbreak is far worse than is being reported.

"If we had as many tests done as New York's had done ... we probably would have 30 or 40,000 cases now," he said on Fox News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade Show. "We need them now. We need our labs to be faster."

Hard-hit Detroit was given a glimmer of hope when the Michigan city secured some of the limited instant testing kits that were recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which will be used to test frontline workers.

In most places, testing is still extremely limited. Los Angeles County told doctors to test patients only if a positive result would change their treatment. 

Lawmakers Lift Education Requirements, Allow Remote Meetings

In the last day of their session, South Dakota legislators, many voting by phone or internet, passed a package of emergency measures in the wee hours.

They approved $11 million for loans to small businesses affected by the pandemic, temporarily lifted standardized testing requirements for students and waived the minimum number of instructional hours required for public schools.

Lawmakers also expanded unemployment benefits to those who lost work or jobs, extended driver’s license expiration dates for up to 90 days and allowed elections to be postponed.

House members also sent thoughts and prayers to one of their colleagues, Republican state Rep. Bob Glanzer, who was hospitalized in critical condition after contracting COVID-19.

In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed into law a bill that temporarily waives the state’s open meeting law and allows local boards to meet by audio or video.

He also signed another wide-ranging measure that includes expanding unemployment benefits, letting retired and out-of-state health care providers practice in the state and allowing pharmacists to extend prescriptions without a doctor’s approval if the provider can’t be reached.

This week, the Vermont Senate wants to join the state House and allow legislators to vote remotely during the health crisis, but the rule change would require at least 16 of the 30 senators to go to the Statehouse to cast their vote. It’s unclear whether they will do that.

In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed into law a bill that waives the 7-day waiting period for residents to get unemployment benefits and expands eligibility to include the self-employed and those working fewer hours.

The measure also allows administrative licensing fees to be suspended or waived for businesses that have been ordered to close, extends the deadline for filing state income taxes and lifts restrictions on telehealth.

And in Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed two supplemental budget bills into law that will provide $150 million to respond to the pandemic. It includes money for monitoring, infection control and medical supplies.

Calls Pour in to Disaster Distress Helpline

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know needs help, call 800-273-TALK (8255) or chat with a counselor online.

Calls to a national hotline for people in emotional distress spiked, up 162% the week of March 11 to March 17 compared with the week before and nearly doubling again the week of March 18 to March 24, for a combined increase of more than 400% in two weeks.

The calls went to the Disaster Distress Helpline, a subnetwork of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It is run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But calls to the suicide prevention line had not increased as of Tuesday morning, spokeswoman Frances Gonzalez told Stateline in an email.

Lifelines are locally operated, Gonzalez said, meaning call volume varies widely among the more than 170 crisis centers. Hotlines in Washington state and New York City, hotspots for the epidemic, did not return calls to Stateline in time for publication.

Stateline staff writers Alex Brown, Jenni Bergal and Ben Streeter contributed to this report.

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State Action on Coronavirus

Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.