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During the recent special session, Governor Justice and leaders in the West Virginia legislature once again demonstrated their complete disregard for the health and safety of West Virginians in favor of pushing an extreme political agenda. 

As a public health organization, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic knows that vaccines are the best tool we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections and to mitigate life-threatening cases in the community. We also know that the only way to protect everyone, including the elderly and immunocompromised, is by fully vaccinating the rest of the community and slowing community spread. Yet West Virginia’s COVID cases continue to climb as vaccination rates lag behind the rest of the country, hovering right under 50%. 

Rather than prioritize the health and safety of their constituents, the legislature swiftly approved a bill that would essentially negate all COVID-19 vaccine requirements in the state of West Virginia. House Bill 335, which was signed into law on October 22, will allow any doctor or nurse practitioner to provide a medical exemption, regardless of whether they have a relationship with the individual. Additionally, religious exemptions will now be defined so broadly that anyone could be granted an exemption, regardless of sincerely held religious beliefs. This law seeks to invalidate the decisions of state government agencies and private employers who require that eligible employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

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Major healthcare providers and medical organizations opposed this legislation and were joined in their protest by business associations, including the West Virginia Business and Industry Council and West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. 

But rather than listen to health care experts, business stakeholders, or their own constituents, lawmakers rushed the bill through in a matter of days. Hypocrisy was on full display as the very same legislators who have pushed extreme anti-abortion legislation that blocks patient access to health care and controls people’s reproductive decisions filled their floor speeches with passionate pleas to “protect bodily autonomy” and “support personal choice.”

If these lawmakers actually cared about autonomy and choice, they would start by ensuring that all people have access to the full scope of health care they need, when they need it, including access to abortion. And if they truly cared about the lives and health of their communities, they would prioritize issues like menstrual equity, paid leave, and expanding postpartum Medicaid coverage — not spreading inflammatory misinformation about vaccines from the House and Senate floors.

The bottom line is that we all want this public health crisis to end, but that won’t happen without strong, decisive leadership. It should alarm us all that West Virginia’s leaders have shown they’re more interested in playing political games and pandering to their base than prioritizing the health of the community.

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