In his latest response to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday issued executive orders suspending all elective surgical procedures and directing private campground operators to refuse admittance to new out-of-state visitors.
Justice said he ordered the suspension of elective surgeries and other medical procedures to conserve limited supplies of personal protective equipment, including masks, respirators, gowns and gloves.
“All elective surgeries will be off the bubble, as of tonight,” Justice said during his Tuesday COVID-19 briefing.
Tony Gregory, West Virginia Hospital Association vice president for legislative affairs, said Tuesday the majority of hospitals in the state already had voluntarily stopped elective surgeries, following guidance issued March 18 by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which recommends delaying all non-essential medical, surgical and dental procedures for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.
However, Gregory said, “The order is the right thing to do to protect patients, preserve supplies and equipment, and the right thing to do for our front-line caregivers.”
According to national news reports, similar executive orders in at least five other states — Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Texas and Ohio — either explicitly apply, or have been interpreted to apply, to prohibiting abortions.
Language in Justice’s executive order doesn’t have specific language about abortions, though.
It states: “The term ‘elective’ includes medical procedures that are not immediately medically necessary to preserve the patient’s life or long-term health, except that procedures that cannot be postponed without compromising the patient’s long-term health, procedures that cannot be performed consistent with other law at a later date, or procedures that are religiously mandated shall not be considered ‘elective’ under this Order.”
West Virginia law prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, except in cases where the woman’s life or health is at risk or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Meanwhile, Justice previously had ordered state park lodges and campgrounds closed to discourage residents living in COVID-19 hot spots from taking refuge in West Virginia.
“Right now, we don’t want people coming in from any state whatsoever, but particularly from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut,” Justice said of expanding the order to include private campgrounds. “We’re just trying as hard as we possibly can to keep someone from an outside state bringing infection here. Before you know it, they’ve infected all kinds of people.”
Otherwise, Justice’s daily briefing — shortened by a 2:45 p.m. meeting with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Secretary of State Mac Warner to discuss options for possibly postponing the May 12 primary election — primarily encouraged West Virginians to continue social distancing and hygiene measures that have helped the state maintain a coronavirus infection rate of under 4% — about half the national average, and well below rates in hot spots such as New York City.
“Whatever we’re doing is working,” Justice said, shifting into basketball coach mode. “Run the play. Just keep running the play. Let’s stay at 4%. Let’s stay at the minimal number of deaths we can stay at.”
Also during Tuesday’s briefing:
- Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and state’s COVID-19 czar, said he believes the sub-4% infection rate might be an overestimate, since West Virginia has done less surveillance testing — testing of individuals with no symptoms and no known risk factors — than other states.
“In many ways, our presumption is that 4% is a higher number than the total percentage of people infected in the state,” he said.
Marsh, too, called on residents to remain vigilant to following social distancing and hygiene measures.
“We want to make sure, every day when we wake up, we stay just as committed to the safety of the people of West Virginia,” he said.
- Justice said moving an election date is a serious matter and one he doesn’t take lightly. But the governor also said he has qualms about proceeding with the May 12 date, particularly if public schools have reopened by then.
“The last thing we want to do is expose these children to all these people coming into the polls,” he said.
While many schools are used as polling places, schools are normally closed on Election Day, although it is possible schools could be open for a make-up day during the primary election.
- State Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said the federal government has granted West Virginia two waivers under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, providing a six-month extension of the renewal period for some recipients and providing for supplemental payments for all households approved for SNAP benefits by April 1.