South Dakota GOP senators back Noem’s vaccine exemption bill

February 8, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A proposal from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to allow employees to gain exemptions from their employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates gained the support of Republicans on a Senate committee Tuesday, clearing a crucial legislative hurdle.

All eight Republican senators on the Senate Commerce and Energy committee voted in favor of the bill after an aide of the Republican governor cast the proposal as a “reasonable solution” that sought a middle ground between doctors urging vaccines and groups opposed to mandates altogether.

The committee’s lone Democrat opposed the bill, which next faces a vote in the full Senate before it can proceed to the House.

The bill would allow employees to receive an exemption to an employer’s vaccine requirement by citing either a medical exemption certified by a medical professional, any religious grounds for refusal or a test showing antibodies against COVID-19 in the last six months.

Noem, as well as several Republicans on the committee, have expressed resistance to telling businesses how to operate as they faced pressure to counteract employers’ vaccine mandates.

“It’s about right on the tipping point for me as far as I personally would go,” said Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, adding that vaccine mandates have become a “politically charged topic, unfortunately.”

The proposal comes as South Dakota’s rate of 59% of people fully vaccinated lags behind the nationwide rate of 64%. A recent surge of infections left 312 people hospitalized with COVID-19 Tuesday, but that was a decline from last month when the number topped 400 — the highest rate in over a year.

Katie Hruska, the governor’s general counsel, noted that the bill is not meant to discourage shots and that Noem herself has been vaccinated.

“COVID vaccination should be a choice and is not one that the government needs to make for us,” she told lawmakers during a hearing that drew a standing-room-only audience.

President Joe Biden’s administration pushed last year to boost the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate and slow the spread of the coronavirus through mandates for employment. But the U.S. Supreme Court has stopped that effort.

However, Biden’s requirement for millions of health care workers, issued through Medicare and Medicaid providers, has remained. Noem’s proposal also carves out an exemption for those health care providers, as well as National Guard troops.

The state’s largest group representing doctors, South Dakota State Medical Association, opposed the bill, arguing that it would enact another set of exemptions to the ones that are already carved out for school vaccinations.

“How easy would it be to cross out COVID-19 in the title and all of a sudden, you blow up our current exemption,” said Dean Krogman, representing the medical association.

Noem is pushing for the proposal to take immediate effect if it passes, but that would take a two-thirds majority vote from both the House and Senate. If the bill gains only a simple majority in either chamber, it would not take effect until July 1. The bill also has a clause that would cause it to expire on June 30, 2023.