PIERRE, S.D. (AP) South Dakota Senate Republicans gave hearty support on Monday to Gov. Kristi Noem’s proposal to allow employees to gain exemptions from their employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, passing it with the two-thirds majority required if it is to be enacted immediately.
The bill drew just four “nay” votes in the 35-member Senate, sending it to the House. The proposal would allow employees to receive an exemption to their 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 is pushing for the bill to get two-thirds support from both chambers so that it can be enacted immediately.
The Republican governor has carved out a reputation nationwide among conservatives for taking a hands-off approach to the virus. But even Noem has seemingly changed her position on the issue of vaccine mandate exemptions in the last year.
In August, she said in a Twitter video that employers should at least allow religious exemptions from mandates, but added that “I don’t have the authority as governor to tell them what to do.”
“It is not conservative to grow government and to tell businesses what to do and how to treat their employees,” Noem said at the time.
However, she has become a powerful proponent of the mandate exemption proposal in this year’s legislative session and argued that her current proposal squares with her hands-off governing philosophy. Her office has cast it as a middle ground between health experts urging vaccines and those opposed to mandates altogether.
As senators debated Noem’s proposal, several raised questions about how a religious exemption can be defined. The bill requires employees to sign on to a 30-word statement that they object to getting COVID-19 shots on religious grounds, but stipulates that those can’t be “social, political, or economic philosophies or mere preference.”
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.
Republican Sen. Erin Tobin, a certified nurse practitioner, argued for the exemptions and called vaccine requirements “politically charged.”
“With the latest variant, it’s going to spread and really the immunization is your choice,” she said.
Democrats, who hold just three seats in the Senate, offered opposition by arguing it undercuts efforts from both public health experts and businesses to get employees’ vaccinated.
“Freedom from the virus, I think, is important,” Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba said.
The proposal comes as South Dakota’s rate of 59% of people fully vaccinated lags behind the nationwide rate of 64%. The state Department of Health reported 259 people hospitalized with COVID-19 Monday, marking a decline from last month when the number topped 400 — the highest rate in over a year.
Meanwhile, the House on Monday passed a bill to demand that medical practitioners may prescribe ivermectin, an unproven treatment for COVID-19. The drug, which is usually used for parasites, has been promoted by conservative commentators as a treatment despite a lack of conclusive evidence that it helps people with the virus.
Federal health officials saw a surge in prescriptions for the drug last year, accompanied by worrying increases in reported overdoses.
This article originally appeared here.