The West Virginia House committee on Health and Human Resources advanced a bill Thursday that would make it illegal for hospitals, colleges or state and local government facilities to ask people entering or using services to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
House Bill 4012 passed the committee through a voice vote, with Delegates Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall; Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia; Rick Griffith, D-Wayne; and Jim Barach, D-Kanawha; voting against the legislation. The bill now advances to the House Judiciary Committee.
The proposed law would not prohibit such facilities from asking questions about vaccination status or inquiring if a person is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. It would stop the facilities only from requiring proof of vaccination.
Delegate Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, spoke in support of the bill, saying it is about protecting “medical freedom” and telling colleagues standing against the bill in the committee to “knock it off.”
Pushkin, who introduced two failed amendments that would have removed hospitals and higher education institutions from the proposed law, pushed back.
“There’s not much to knock off, because it [facilities asking for proof of vaccination] is not happening here. It hasn’t been, but I think it should,” Pushkin said. “It’s not your right to go to a football game. It is your right whether or not you want to get vaccinated, and it’s also other people’s right to want to stay safe from illness.”
Pushkin said removing colleges and universities from the bill would give institutions more control over how to protect their students and communities when virus spread is high. Several colleges across the country have implemented their own policies requiring masks or proof of vaccination for fans at sporting events and other gatherings.
“This is also about local control — it allows that school to make the decision on how it wants to keep its students and fans safe,” Pushkin said. “I don’t think the government should have a hand in that.”
Delegate Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, and Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor — a nurse practitioner and a registered nurse, respectively — both spoke against removing the section of the proposed bill regarding hospitals.
The law, as it reads today, would apply to patients and visitors at hospitals.
“I think especially those that work in health care who are on this committee should think about it and not hamstring our hospitals, [which] are there to keep people safe, not leave with an illness they didn’t have when they arrived,” Pushkin said.
If someone is ill, Tully said, their loved ones should be able to visit them without worrying about providing “a piece of paper.”
“We are living in a pandemic, and we’re going to have to learn to do that as the pandemic continues,” Tully said. “To me, common sense is treating people like human beings and not saying, ‘Where are your papers.’ ”
Last summer, Walker’s son died in a hospital after a battle with leukemia. She told committee members Thursday that, while she was grateful to be with him, the time spent at the hospital was stressful because of the COVID-19 risk. Her mother, a breast cancer survivor, was at home and at high risk if she did contract COVID-19. Walker said she herself has underlying conditions that also could make her more sick.
“I know, in this great state and with all the administrators we have at hospitals, that someone could understand someone not having that piece of paper, and they would not deny someone being by the bedside of their loved one that may be taking their last gasp,” Walker said. “I’m glad that my friend [who had COVID-19] survived it, but we have so many Mountaineers who haven’t.”
Vaccinated people can still spread the virus, Longanacre noted. He said requiring a proof of vaccination to access certain places or use services when this is possible doesn’t make sense.
While those who are vaccinated do spread the virus, mutations occur mostly in groups of unvaccinated people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When viruses evolve — like from the delta COVID-19 strain to omicron — they develop mutations that could change the kind of illness they cause and the effectiveness of treatments to help fight those infections.
For example, there were effective monoclonal antibody treatments available to help people who contracted the delta variant of COVID-19. When it mutated to omicron, those interventions no longer were helpful because of dozens of spike protein mutations that changed the virus on a molecular level, according to the CDC. Now, there is only one monoclonal antibody treatment approved for use in omicron infections, and supply nationwide is stunted.
These mutations also affect how the virus attacks the immune system. While emerging data show omicron infections might cause less severe illness in many who contract it, it targets the body’s upper respiratory system.
Because of this, children — who have underdeveloped respiratory systems — are now facing greater risks of severe illness, hospitalization and even death from COVID-19 infections, according to ongoing studies in Indiana and several other areas.
Health experts are clear: Low vaccination rates in areas with high transmission are the ideal circumstances for viruses to mutate.
Griffith, who opposed the bill, said he understands the urge to protect privacy, but questions the potential cost.
“I understand the complexity of our feelings today and I think, in terms of health care, when someone is seriously ill, we want to do everything we can to save their lives. I’m afraid this bill is taking another element that reduces that consequence away,” Griffith said. “I don’t like any intrusion into my life, but when something is prudent to save lives like this, I think we need to do what’s best for that.”