CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia employers would be limited in their ability to require workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus under a bill introduced by Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday.

The proposal, which would allow certain medical and religious exemptions to company COVID-19 vaccine mandates, comes as the state approaches 4,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Employers would be barred under the bill from penalizing or discriminating against current or prospective employees for pursuing the exemptions.

The bill, which covers businesses and state government agencies, was advanced in the state Senate on first reading Wednesday. In the House of Delegates, it was referred to a committee.

Justice, a Republican, lifted an earlier indoor mask mandate in June and opposes any new mask or vaccine mandates.

Businesses can mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, “but at the same time they need to allow for these exemptions,” Justice said at a news conference.

Under the bill, a doctor or nurse can provide signed documentation that the employee has a physical condition preventing them from safely receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, or the worker has recovered from COVID-19 and can show they have antibodies for the virus. The worker also can present to their employer a notarized certification for a religious exemption.

The West Virginia University Health System, the state’s largest private employer, is requiring its more than 20,000 employees to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 31. Charleston Area Medical Center said its nearly 8,000 employees must provide COVID-19 vaccine documentation by Friday.

WVU Medicine said in a statement that it opposes the bill.

“We would urge the Legislature to push the pause button and work with key stakeholders and employers across West Virginia to ensure this bill does not unintentionally derail their efforts to protect their employees and the broader public,” the statement said.

Several others states are considering anti-mandate bills. GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order to prohibit any entity, including private business, from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on workers.

In Maine, a federal judge declined Wednesday to intervene to stop the Democratic governor's requirement that health care workers be vaccinated by month’s end. And in New York, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that health care workers will be able to seek religious exemptions from a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a lawsuit challenging the requirement proceeds.

Active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia have fallen 67% since peaking at a record 29,744 a month ago. The number of hospital patients from the virus has dropped 18% since peaking at 1,012 on Sept. 24. But there are 240 virus patients in hospital intensive care units and 175 on ventilators.

— Contact Charles Owens at Follow him @BDTOwens

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