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House passes governor’s COVID vaccine exemption bill after nearly 2-hour debate

CHARLESTON — The House of Delegates spent an hour and 50 minutes debating the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine exemption bill before passing it with a 68-30 vote.

The bill is HB 335. It will go to the Senate for a vote there.

The bill says an employer that requires vaccination for hiring or continued employment must grant certain exemptions, based on receiving from the current or prospective employee a certification from a physician or nurse practitioner that a vaccine is not safe for that person or the person has natural antibody immunity from COVID-19 exposure or recovery; or a notarized certificate of religious objection.

The bill prohibits penalizing or discriminating against current or prospective employees who seek an exemption and provides for injunctive relief in court.

The opponents cited a number of issues — some of them raised earlier this week during the sole committee meeting on the bill and during a Democratic press conference.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, is among the many who’ve received emails requesting a total ban on vaccine mandates, but said that this bill doesn’t do that. “If anything, what this bill does is provide some ammunition for attorneys to argue mandates are allowed.”

However, government business regulations typically make exceptions for small businesses, he said. This doesn’t. If you have just one employee, the government is telling you how to run your business.

It’s been noted several times that fake religious exemptions are for sale on social media. This bill undermines, Hansen said, processes hospitals and other employers have in place to vet claims.

He mentioned — without naming — a major health care provider that has received 100 religious exemption requests and has granted only 15. Issues such as prior practice of the employee — have they had other vaccines, for instance — are weighed when making a decision. A notary only verifies the applicant’s identity.

Several opponents cited the principle placing the interests of others above personal freedom. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said, “My choice affects a lot of other people. Viruses don’t just stay with us.”

Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, was among those who cited the universal opposition to the bill from every major health system in the state and from the business community — including the state Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturers Association.

New federal vaccine mandates from OSHA and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are due out within a couple weeks, he said, and it will be a waste of taxpayer money to call the Legislature back to fix anything in this bill that’s out of federal compliance. It would be better to just wait.

Among those defending the bill was Heather Tully, R-Nichols, who told her colleagues she’s a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner who’s participated in vaccine clinics.

Some vaccine opponents have legitimate concerns about things, such as how quickly the COVID vaccines received approval when normal vaccine development takes 10-to-14 years.

Doctors and nurse practitioners, she said, won’t risk their licenses to sign fraudulent medical exemptions. This bill, she said, seeks to balance employee and employer rights and ensures that employer exemption processes are legitimate.

Hospitals are already understaffed, she said, and nurses with limited experience are at bedsides. Losing more who quit because of vaccine mandates won’t ensure the best care for patients.

Government Organization Chair Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh — his committee approved the bill — said it will save employers and employees money because the injunction process allows the question of legitimate exemption claims to be settled quickly in circuit court — not federal court — and can be handled before the employee quits or is fired.

Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, a nurse, is lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. She’s pro-vaccine and has been vaccinated herself, she said.

But the bill is about listening to constituents, she said. “We are tired; we want to be heard and valued, not cast aside because we have concerns about the vaccine.”

She knows stories of businesses refusing to grant legitimate exemptions, she said. People are facing the loss of jobs and careers, and this bill is about a balancing act. When weighing individual freedoms and business rights, it’s better to err on the side of individual liberty.

Nine Republicans voted no, among them Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, who did not put his name on the governor’s bill as a sponsor. One Democrat voted for it. Locally, all delegates voted with their party.

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