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Over 4,100 West Virginians have died because of COVID-19. Currently in our hospitals, nearly 80% of those admitted for COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Those percentages go up for patients in intensive care and on ventilators.

And yet, Gov. Jim Justice has introduced a bill which would undermine vaccine mandates and jeopardize public health and safety.

Each day, more unvaccinated West Virginians fall ill and end up in our intensive care units, fighting for their lives. During every one of Justice’s news briefings, he reads names of West Virginians we’ve lost to COVID-19. How can you read the names of our fellow West Virginians, our friends, our family members, and loved ones and continue to play politics with vaccines? How can someone who reads the names of those who died each day turn around and introduce a bill that limits vaccines?

Justice put House Bill 335, the vaccine exemption bill, on the special session agenda in the dead of night and sent it to a committee in the House of Delegates, where it got only 30 minutes of consideration the next day. More than 4,100 West Virginians lost, and a bill that limits vaccines gets 30 minutes.

You’re probably assuming this committee had something to do with health, right? Wrong. This bill was referred to the Government Organization Committee, and Republicans denied the efforts of Democrats to send it to the Health Committee to get further evaluation and consideration.

How can someone who claims to support medical professionals and hospitals introduce a bill that limits vaccines? They don’t. If Justice truly supported our medical professionals, he wouldn’t be pushing exemptions on vaccines that will put our hospital staff, caretakers and patients at risk.

WVU Medicine and the West Virginia Hospital Association oppose this bill. They’ve seen firsthand the effect COVID-19 has had on their hospitals, their staff who have risked their lives and their patients who deserve to be protected when they come for care, not exposed to unvaccinated staff that could make them sick.

Justice is overstepping a vast majority of health care providers who believe in vaccines and vaccine mandates. He’s ignoring those who are putting their lives at risk to take care of one another for his own political motivations. Not only is he overstepping health care providers and medical professionals, he didn’t even consult with them on this vaccine exemption bill.

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How can someone who claims to support our businesses in West Virginia introduce a bill that limits vaccines? The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce opposes this bill. West Virginia businesses are shuttering because of this pandemic. We should be supporting our essential workers and our businesses, not putting them in danger. How can you claim to want to attract new businesses to West Virginia and support this nonsense that hurts business?

West Virginia leaders have fought for years to attract new business to our state, and stunts like this are what hurts economic development in West Virginia. Who wants to come to or bring business to a state that doesn’t believe in protecting its citizens?

Lastly, how can someone who has given away millions of dollars and prizes to West Virginians to get vaccinated not listen to their own advice? Justice has incentivized getting vaccinated and, out of the other side of his mouth, he’s promoting exemptions on vaccines. We’ve lost thousands of West Virginians to COVID-19, and our children, who cannot be vaccinated yet, need to be protected.

The cost of this type of doublespeak and confusion could be more lives lost.

It seems like Justice needs to be the one listening to Babydog, and not marching to the orders of Republican legislators who simply want to play politics at the expense of West Virginians.

If you’re not going to do it for Babydog, like you’ve been telling us to do, do it for West Virginians. The passage of this bill puts our elderly, our children and our loved ones in danger.

West Virginians deserve better.

Belinda Biafore is chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party.

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