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West Virginia lawmakers receive pandemic vaccine exemption bill

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Legislature moved quickly on a last-minute addition to the special session for private sector COVID-19 vaccine exemptions.

Senate Bill 3035 and House Bill 335, both relating to COVID-19 immunization requirement for employment in the public and private sectors, were added to the special session call late Tuesday evening by Gov. Jim Justice. The bills were read a first time Wednesday, setting them up for possible amendments later today and passage Friday.

SB 3055 and HB 335 would allow for medical and religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates put in place by employers. Public and private sector employees would have to provide employers a certificate signed by a licensed physician or advanced practical registered nurse either showing that a medical issue prevents vaccination, or the employee has antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection.

For the religious exemption, an employee would have to show a notarized certificate to the employer stating that the employee or new hire has religious beliefs that prevent them from taking the vaccine.

The bills would prohibit employers from firing, hiring, withholding bonuses, pay raises, or promotions any employee who refuses a COVID-19 vaccine. The bill is not retroactive, so anyone who was fired or quit a job to avoid a COVID-19 vaccine would be unaffected by the new law.

The state Senate moved the bill to second reading without referring it to a committee.

The House referred the bill to their Government Organization Committee Wednesday afternoon, quickly recommending the bill to the full House for passage. In a House floor session immediately after the Government Organization Committee meeting, Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, made a motion to refer the bill to the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

“This is a very important bill to our state,” Zukoff said. “It impacts a lot of people and it’s definitely about health, so I think it’s only fair that the Health Committee — which has jurisdiction over public health issues — have the right to take this up in committee and discuss it.”

House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said it made sense for the bill to go through his committee. He said the bill deals with regulations and doesn’t involve medical decisions.

“This bill does not deal with the efficacy of vaccinations,” Steele said. “What this bill deals with is the government/employer relationship or the employer/employee relationship, which has historically been the jurisdiction of the Government Organization Committee.”

West Virginia University Medicine released a statement Wednesday opposing the bill. WVU Medicine set an October deadline back in August for all clinical and non-clinical staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“WVU Medicine opposes the COVID-19 exemptions bill in its current form. 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.”

A poll conducted by North Star Opinion Research in September on behalf of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce found that 67 percent of respondents said employers should be free to make decisions regarding whether employees should be vaccinated. Only 18 percent said the Legislature should make those decisions.

Justice also amended the special session call to replace a piece of legislation dealing with giving county commissions 30 days to approve decisions made by county boards of health or county health officers. The amended bill clarifies terms, explains the difference between an order and a rule, and better defines the role of county health officers. An attempt to give similar authority to county boards of education over health department decisions regarding schools was stripped out of the bill.

Another bill added to the special session call late Tuesday night would transfer $4 million to the Department of Homeland Security’s Division of Justice and Community Services for the Victims of Crime Act.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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