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W.Va. Senate gets shot at COVID vaccine exemption bill

Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography WARNING — Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, a respiratory doctor who has treated patients with COVID-19, warned about the unintended consequences of passing a bill aimed at religious and medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines.

CHARLESTON — A bill that creates a process for workers in West Virginia to seek exemptions to COVID-19 workplace vaccination requirements passed the state Senate on Tuesday after more than two hours of debate and bipartisan objections.

House Bill 335, relating to COVID-19 immunizations requirements for employment in the public and private sectors, passed the state Senate 17-16 Tuesday afternoon with only state Sen. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, absent. However, the bill failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to make it effective from passage, meaning the bill could take 90 days from passage by the Legislature before it can become law.

HB 335 creates a process for public and private sector employees to seek medical and religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates from employers.

Workers would be able to provide certificates from licensed medical professional stating that the employee has medical issues that prevent them from being vaccinated or the employee has antibodies from a previous infection. Workers would also be able to provide a notarized statement to employers claiming they have religious beliefs that prevent them from taking any of the three COVID-19 vaccines. It also allows employees to seek injunctive relief against employers.

A successful amendment offered by state Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, puts language in the bill that if any part of the bill is deemed unconstitutional or invalid by future federal laws and rules, those federal laws and rules won’t invalidate the entire state law.

“This debate is not about whether the vaccine works or not,” said Tarr, a licensed physical therapist who own a franchise of physical therapy clinics in gyms. “This is about the people of West Virginia … having the personal choice over their medical decisions.”

Debate on the bill lasted for more than two hours Tuesday evening, with a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic senators opposing the bill.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, accused Tarr and other Republicans of “sneakily” pushing the bill, avoiding scrutiny by his committee as well as the Senate’s other doctors, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, and state Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone.

“We’re not stopping a mandate … we’re putting a mandate on private businesses … it’s the biggest piece of trash dumped down the throats of businesses since I’ve been in the Senate,” Maroney said.

“We ought to be doing things to improve public health … and stop deaths of our fellow West Virginians,” said Stollings, a physician in Madison. “We’ve lost enough West Virginians. Let’s put this away. It conflicts with the federal laws coming down the pike. Let’s try to keep our people safe and our businesses operating.”

“I don’t think the bill achieves what its intended purpose is,” said Takubo, a pulmonologist who has treated numerous COVID-19 patients. “At the end of the day, I have yet to take care of a patient that has had a problem with the vaccine, but I have filled out many, many deaths certificates of those who didn’t take the vaccine.”

A number of state groups representing business and the healthcare industry have come out against HB 335 since it was introduced last week, including the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the West Virginia Hospital Association, the West Virginia State Medical Association, and the West Virginia Business and Industry Council.

A letter sent to lawmakers last week by the state Chamber of Commerce and signed by 36 businesses and industry groups argued that HB 335 interferes with federal protections already in place for medical and religious exemptions, that it may interfere with rules being written by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring businesses with more than 100 employees institute vaccine mandates, and that the bill interfered with the rights of employers to manage their workplaces.

Leaving the podium and taking his place on the Senate floor, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, compared Biden’s vaccine mandates to “Nazi Germany,” stating the HB 335 was needed.

“I’m not telling you to not get the vaccine … and I think you should get the vaccine, but it’s a choice,” Blair said. “”I think this harkens back to Nazi Germany … our government is using public money to force the public to be obedient to the state.”

Another state Senator, Wayne County Republican Mark Maynard, compared refusing to act to protect West Virginians from government mandates to allowing the Holocaust to happen.

“With all the emails and personal text messages and Facebook messages we have received from our constituents … that analogy reminds me of someone doing something, and this bill does something,” Maynard said.

Speaking against the bill, state Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, asked why one person’s religious gives them the right to compromise the health of another person. Brown is the leader of the state’s NAACP chapter and a member of Gov. Jim Justice’s COVID-19 task force.

“Religious freedom is not an absolute in this country,” Brown said. “You have a social compact you sign as people in this country, and the government looks out for the general welfare of the people. It seems as though by having a mandate, this government is looking out for the general welfare of this country.”

HB 335 passed the House of Delegates last week in a 68-30 vote. Nine of the 76 Republicans who attended last Friday’s vote joined all 22 members of the Democratic minority in opposing the bill, including House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, who declined to co-sponsor the bill as is tradition for bills introduced on behalf of a governor.

The House will resume the special session tonight at 6 p.m. to consider the changes made to HB 335 by the Senate.

(Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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