Justice ‘clarifies’ exemptions for vaccine mandates

CHARLESTON — West Virginia businesses have the right to mandate employee COVID vaccinations, but both medical and religious exemptions must be respected, according to Gov. Jim Justice.

“That is the (federal) law of the land,” Justice told state media during a virtual briefing Wednesday.

As the West Virginia Legislature convenes in special session to discuss redistricting issues, Justice has added legislation to the call he explained would clarify to businesses the need for both medical and religious exemptions to COVID vaccinations.

But reporters participating in the briefing were quick to remind Justice that West Virginia law doesn’t allow for religious exemptions to vaccines required by schools and the military, such as those for measles and smallpox.

He was asked if this would lead the way to granting exemptions for other vaccine requirements based on religious beliefs.

Justice only said that he stands behind the rights of private businesses to enact a mandate, though he personally is opposed to them.

“I firmly stand behind the rights of our private businesses,” he said. “What I am trying to say here is our businesses need to conform to the (federal) law … I am against the federal government telling our businesses what to do, but we need to follow the law of the land.”

Justice noted that West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has written a legal opinion that businesses mandating COVID vaccines must offer both medical and religious exemptions.

Vaccinations for measles and mumps “have weathered the test of time,” and the difference is that COVID vaccinations are new to society, Justice said.

Justice also was informed during his briefing that WVU Medicine had just announced it was opposing his legislation that would permit religious exemptions to COVID vaccinations.

“WVU Medicine opposes the COVID-19 exemptions bill in its current form,” said a release from WVU Hospital. “We would urge the Legislature to push the pause button and work with key stakeholders and employers across West Virginia to ensure this bill does not unintentionally derail their efforts to protect their employees and the broader public.”

Justice said he was not yet aware of the released statement, but he would look into WVU Medicine’s thoughts.

State Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh said while he is vice president and executive dean for health sciences at the Academic Health Science Center at WVU Hospitals, policy decisions come from WVU Health Systems as a whole and its director Albert Wright.

Marsh said he was fully supportive of “technical efforts” put in place by Justice to keep the state unified and running efficiently.

Justice announced an additional 22 deaths from COVID were reported in West Virginia since Monday, bringing the total number of those who have died from COVID in the state to 3,998.

The number of active cases in recent days has been declining, however, according to Justice. He said the state hit its peak of 29,744 active COVID cases on Sept. 17, and that number was 9,703 as of Wednesday morning.

Most recent numbers show 829 hospitalized with COVID in West Virginia, 239 patients in intensive care units, and 175 on ventilators.

“It’s not to say we can’t jump back … but nevertheless that’s a good-looking chart,” Justice said. “It does show a peak, and it does show it coming down.”


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