Ranking Senate Democrats voiced strong opposition Thursday to calls for a special session to pass legislation that would prohibit businesses, school systems, and colleges and universities from requiring vaccinations or other COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“At some point, somebody has to be the adult in the room and stand up for the right thing,” Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said of those who either are opting to do nothing during the current COVID-19 surge or are calling for anti-vaccination and/or anti-face mask mandates.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, said he is concerned that many West Virginians are either trying to politicize COVID-19 or are choosing not to take the pandemic seriously.
“Our whole health care system is about to implode. The sense of crisis should be everywhere,” said Stollings, who gave examples of Boone Memorial Hospital patients having to be transported to facilities in Ohio and Michigan because intensive care units in West Virginia hospitals are reaching capacity.
Baldwin, Stollings and Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, held the Zoom teleconference Thursday to show solidarity with Senate Republicans who they said are quietly opposed to holding a COVID-19 special session.
Stollings said legislators have been inundated with calls and emails from those opposed to vaccines and face masks, adding, “Some of us have been contacted by members of the majority party, who have grave concerns if a special session is called.”
Gov. Jim Justice has shown no interest in calling a COVID-19 special session. It takes a four-fifths majority of members of the House of Delegates and Senate for the Legislature to petition itself into session.
About two-dozen Republican delegates sent a letter to Justice asking him to call a special session to limit public health mandates, while a handful of senators, most recently including Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, have made similar requests.
Baldwin concurred that there is bipartisan opposition to a special session in the Senate.
He said medical and public health professionals should be making decisions about the best ways to guide the state through the pandemic, not politicians.
Lindsay said he is astounded that some Republicans want to impose their will on private businesses, school systems, and colleges and universities, against the best advice of public health experts.
“All they’re trying to do is protect their customers and students,” he said.
Conversely, Stollings said he is upset Justice has not taken mitigation action during the current COVID-19 surge, as he did when the pandemic first hit West Virginia in the spring of 2020, including mandating masks and limiting the size of public gatherings.
“I wish the governor would listen to Clay Marsh [vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar] more, and the public health people more,” Stollings said. “We need to resume indoor masking again, particularly in public schools.”
He added, “Instead of putting obstacles and hurtles in front of our public health system, we should be supportive and listen to the experts.”
Baldwin said it is time for Senate Democrats to speak out as COVID-19 rages across the state.
“The point of speaking out today is to take a stand to say, this is serious. People are in the hospital. They’re on ventilators. They’re dying,” he said.
As of Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Resources reported 22,972 active COVID-19 cases, with 1,744 new cases since Wednesday, and 3,189 deaths, up 20 from Wednesday. Hospitalization figures, which lag by one day, showed 813 West Virginians hospitalized, just five below the prior pandemic peak in January, with a record 252 in the ICU and 132 on ventilators.
Justice said Wednesday that West Virginia is leading the nation in the acceleration of COVID-19 cases, and Marsh said it will be another five to seven days, and possibly as long as 10 to 14 days, for the current surge to peak, and that hospitalizations and deaths will continue to increase for some time after that.