County officials in Wichita vote to restrict abortion amid outbreak

photo by: Associated Press

In this Thursday, May 19, 2016 file photo, South Wind Women's Center executive director Julie Burkhart stands in the entryway of the Wichita, Kan. clinic which was once owned by slain Dr. George Tiller, pictured at left. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Story updated at 4:18 p.m. Wednesday

WICHITA — Officials in the Wichita area took what is likely to be an unsuccessful step toward halting abortions amid the coronavirus outbreak as the Kansas prison system reported its first cases in three workers.

Sedgwick County commissioners voted Wednesday to approve a recommendation to restrict abortion clinics to only essential medical procedures during the coronavirus pandemic, a move designed to stop abortions at the Trust Women Wichita Clinic.

The recommendation will go to the county’s health officer, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, where it likely will be shot down. The Kansas Supreme Court last year declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution.

“Women’s reproductive health is considered an essential need and health care clinics will fall under that category,” Kelly said at a news conference Wednesday.

Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of the clinic, has called the proposal “unethical” and “unconscionable.”

But Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and abortion opponent said: “While high-risk screenings and all elective procedures throughout the state are being canceled and doctor’s offices are struggling to survive, why should an elective abortion be an exception? Personal protective equipment is in short supply during this pandemic. Making an exception for an elective abortion is inexcusable.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections announced Tuesday night that three employees at the Lansing Correctional Facility are recovering at home from COVID-19 in the first positive diagnoses in the state prison system. Inmates who had close contact with the workers have been moved to medical isolation where they will be monitored for symptoms.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said staff in the state’s prison system are using protective equipment only when treating inmates who are ill with coronavirus or who are suspected of having it. She said it would require 13,500 sets of equipment each day to have all staff use them as a preventive measure, and the supply chain “is not going to support it.”

Kelly said the state is “really at the exploratory phase right now on what action we may or may not need to take regarding our corrections facilities.”

“They’re understandably frightened,” Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said of prison staff.

Health officials reported 482 cases Wednesday, up 54 from Tuesday. And the number of COVID-19 fatalities has grown to 11 following the death Tuesday of a 90-year-old woman in Coffey County. The county is battling an outbreak at the Life Care Center of Burlington, located about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Topeka.


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