After more than two hours of debate, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a last-minute COVID-19 vaccination exemption measure Friday morning, sending the bill to the state Senate, which is under pressure from business and healthcare groups to oppose the plan. 

Shawn Fluharty, the House Minority Whip, is speaking out against a bill that would allow broad exemptions to COVID-19 immunizations for public and private employees. House Bill 335 was approved by a vote of 68-30, with nine Republicans joining the Democratic minority in opposition, including House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. 

Employer-imposed COVID-19 vaccine obligations would be subject to medical and religious exemptions under HB 335. Employees in the public and private sectors would be able to provide employers with a certificate signed by a licensed physician or advanced practice registered nurse stating that they cannot be vaccinated due to a medical condition or have antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection. 

Employees seeking a religious exemption would have to present the employer with a notarized certificate saying that the employee or new hire’s religious beliefs prevent them from receiving the vaccine. Employees who refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine could be fired, hired, bonuses, pay hikes, or promotions withheld under the bill. 

The bill was submitted late Wednesday night by House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, on behalf of Gov. Jim Justice. The law, according to Summers, is intended to provide help and direction to both employees and their employers. 

I’m pro-vaccine. My colleagues and I stepped up in December to be some of the first to take the vaccine, and I do think it’s been beneficial in decreasing the severity of the disease,” Summers said. “We find ourselves in a position with this bill where we’re being characterized either for business or the worker … shouldn’t we be for both? Why can’t we just have two exemptions?” 

Summers and other Republican delegates said the exemptions were needed to keep certain industries, including healthcare, from losing workers who quit or are fired for refusing to be vaccinated. 

To me, this is about listening to my constituents who elected me; my co-workers and fellow healthcare personnel who have been fighting the good fight for almost two years,” said Summers, an emergency room nurse who came down with a breakthrough COVID-19 infection recently. “We’re tired. We want to be heard. We want to be valued and not cast aside because we have concerns about a vaccine.” 

 “Units are already understaffed. We have limited-experience nurses at the bedside,” said Del. Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, who also works as a registered nurse. “By ensuring we lay off or terminate these people who had vaccine exemption denials, is that the best way to ensure we provide care for the residents of this state? I think not.” 

Many Democratic House members spoke out against the bill, citing statements from business and healthcare leaders warning that HB 335 could conflict with federal labor rules and other upcoming vaccine guidelines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, is also preparing to provide recommendations on vaccine mandates for enterprises with more than 100 employees. 

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said lawmakers received a letter Friday from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and signed by more than 50 large businesses and healthcare organizations warning about negative consequences to passing HB 335, including taking away decision-making authority from private businesses. 

 “I’m not against exemptions … but I have a list of 50 businesses here in the last 24 hours, major employers in West Virginia, against this bill,” Skaff said. “The bottom line here is this: we have the Chamber of Commerce and every business entity in this state … every one of them reached out to me and said, ‘what are you guys doing up there?’ This is a slippery slope.” 

House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, pointed out that the state has lost 4,108 West Virginians to COVID-19. Since the state started vaccinations in December 2020, more than 92 percent of deaths have been unvaccinated West Virginians. 

Source: Parkersburg News and Sentinel