Committee approves vaccine exemption bill amid misinformation, offensive language

By: - February 14, 2023 2:41 pm
The state Capitol in Pierre. (Getty Images)

The state Capitol in Pierre. (Getty Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story includes offensive language, which has been included to accurately portray the content of a public legislative hearing.

A South Dakota legislative committee approved a bill Tuesday that would establish a “conscience” exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandates, after the committee hearing at the Capitol in Pierre disintegrated into a parade of misinformation and offensive language.

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-6 to send the bill to the full House of Representatives. The legislation would establish a legal right to opt out of COVID-19 vaccine mandates that violate a person’s “inner conviction regarding that which is right or wrong.”

The bill says people couldn’t be disciplined for not getting the vaccine. Additionally, institutions could be sued for mandating the vaccine if they failed to let their employees or students know about the exemption. 

The legislation does not apply to the National Guard or health care facilities; however, it does apply to educational institutions, including medical schools.

Opponents of the bill, including some public health officials and health care organizations, argued it could undermine efforts to combat a new variant, put vulnerable populations at risk, and exert too much control over private businesses.

“This bill will create an extremely troubling precedent and launch us on a slippery slope that will lead to attempts to expand this subjective and absolute exemption to all vaccines,” said Justin Smith, a lobbyist for the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce.

This bill will create an extremely troubling precedent and launch us on a slippery slope that will lead to attempts to expand this subjective and absolute exemption to all vaccines.

– Justin Smith, lobbyist, Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce

Prime sponsor Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, said the bill protects individual freedom and the right to make medical decisions based on personal beliefs.

“The sad reality is that the American people were lied to,” Hansen said.

As evidence, he cited COVID vaccine-related deaths people have self-reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Report System (VAERS).

VAERS is a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S.-licensed vaccines. VAERS is co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s a passive system, meaning anyone can make an unverified report. The system is not intended to be used as proof of a problem with a vaccine. VAERS reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable, according to the CDC.

While there have been self-reported instances of alleged problems with COVID vaccines in South Dakota reported to VAERS, CDC data also say 741,781 South Dakotans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The hearing Tuesday included remote testimony from Benjamin Marble, who’s known for appearing on disgraced conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show to argue that Anthony Fauci, formerly the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, “created” COVID-19 and is “the greatest mass murderer in the history of the world.”

“Earth to poison pushers, you need to wake up,” Marble said during testimony. “These fake vaccines are far more deadly than cyanide.”

Marble went too far for the committee chairman, Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton.

“Please focus on the bill and stop the attacks, OK?” Jensen asked of Marble.

“Sure, OK. In summation, are you a retard or did God give you a brain?” Dr. Marble said.

“OK, stop, stop. You’re done. You’re done.” Jensen said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all eligible people receive a vaccine as a safe and effective means of protecting against COVID-19. 

“A large CDC vaccine safety study showed that there was no increased risk of death linked to COVID-19 vaccination,” the CDC shared in a statement. “Myocarditis after COVID-19 vaccination is rare. Heart problems are five times more likely after COVID-19 illness than after COVID-19 vaccination.”

Sixty-six South Dakotans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and 3,153 have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the state Department of Health.



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Joshua Haiar
Joshua Haiar

Joshua Haiar is a reporter based in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Mitchell, he joined the Navy as a public affairs specialist after high school and then earned a degree from the University of South Dakota. Prior to joining South Dakota Searchlight, Joshua worked for five years as a multimedia specialist and journalist with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.