When Gov. Jim Justice inevitably signs the bill providing medical and religious exemptions from employer mandates regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s going to open another can of worms in an already messy situation.
Justice asked the Legislature to take the bill up during its special session on redistricting. In a Senate controlled by a GOP supermajority, the bill barely passed, 17-16. Sen. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, was absent. The vote in the House of Delegates, also under a Republican supermajority, wasn’t as close, with 66 in favor, 24 opposed and 10 absent.
It’s an unfortunate political display that might end up costing some West Virginians their jobs, if not their health or their lives. Although it’s en vogue for far-right Republicans to trash the research on the vaccines and their benefits, while making a misguided stab at arguing for individual freedom, COVID-19 is going to continue putting West Virginians in the hospital and killing them until state vaccination rates are out of the basement. That’s the truth of the issue.
It’s also a bit misleading to call rules businesses have put in place vaccine “mandates.” In most cases, employees where such a rule is in place have a choice: They can get vaccinated or get tested weekly. Some, like the Gazette-Mail’s parent company, HD Media, require those who go the testing route to wear a mask indoors, to minimize the health risk they pose to their co-workers. So, there’s still some personal freedom involved.
There was concern from legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, that Justice’s bill is too broad, and might end up making exemptions too easy to maintain, with intentions that aren’t sincere. This also will become more complicated, once federal rules on the COVID-19 vaccines are implemented.
What this all portends is complicated, drawn-out legal action, once someone loses their job or can’t get an exemption. It also will hinder West Virginia’s effort, paltry as it has been, to reach vaccination levels that will stave off future surges, especially as colder weather approaches.
Members of Justice’s public health team have warned that another surge is coming, if the state doesn’t hit an 80% vaccination rate by winter. Right now, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, barely more than 50% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. That number doesn’t go up much — 58% — when looking at the total population eligible for the vaccine (age 12 and up).
That Justice wanted the bill passed shows his indecisive nature and poor leadership in recent months. The governor consistently tells West Virginians that vaccination is the only way out of this continual cycle of surges, hospitalizations and deaths, but also caves to political pressure from the far right, coming up with a bill that more than a few Republicans in the Legislature have labeled as garbage.
No one wins when trying to score political points against a lethal microbe, but that’s a lesson some state officials seem determined to ignore.