Aiken lawmaker wants SC governor to fight vaccine mandates. He won't intervene at SRS.

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Oct. 13—A state lawmaker representing a portion of Aiken County on Wednesday asked S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster to fight COVID-19 vaccine requirements and to take a hint from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently barred such mandates in his state.

"No vaccine should be forced upon grown adults who can make decisions for themselves," Rep. Melissa Oremus, a Republican, wrote in a letter shared on social media. "I implore you to stop this madness of a forced vaccine mandate and the liberty loving citizens of South Carolina beg you to stop this craziness."

Vaccine requirements, Oremus continued, are jeopardizing many jobs, including at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the contractor that manages the Savannah River Site. The Fluor-led team unveiled vaccine rules in early September; other federal contractors — like Triad National Security LLC, which operates Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico — have enacted similar regulations.

"Many of my constituents have spoken and they do not want to be forced into anything," Oremus wrote to McMaster. "It is my job to stand with them and protect their freedoms."

The Republican governor on Tuesday said he would not interfere with the decisions of private companies — effectively spiking Oremus's entreaty.

"I think Gov. Abbott is a very experienced leader in Texas," he told reporters at the Statehouse, "but in our state, we didn't tell our businesses what to do, and we are not going to tell them what not to do."

A spokesperson for McMaster on Wednesday emphasized that the governor "couldn't disagree more with the federal government mandating that anybody get vaccinated. He has always maintained that he believes whether to get vaccinated or not should remain a personal choice. That said, a private employer making this decision is different." Savannah River Nuclear Solutions began the process of requiring vaccination well before President Joe Biden's fiat.

Grassroots groups like the Aiken Citizens for Freedom have protested vaccine requirements at the Savannah River Site, where radioactive wastes are stored and processed, arguing that rights and livelihoods are under attack.

"I have a lot of personal friends, close friends, whose jobs are being threatened right now, who don't want to be vaccinated," Karen Collins, whose husband is a Savannah River Site retiree, said in an interview last month.

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is expecting some unvaccinated workers to retire or quit in the near future, the Aiken Standard has learned. The company maintains that inoculation is "the most effective tool to help ensure a safe work environment and better protect us from serious illness due to the virus."

A vast majority of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide in June, July, August and September were among those not fully vaccinated, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control data show.

Fifty Savannah River Site employees were quarantined with COVID-19 as of Oct. 8. In early September, SRNS President and CEO Stuart MacVean said 11 "of our team members here at the site have been hospitalized in the last two months and four of them have passed because of this terrible disease. The average age of the deceased employees was 48 and we understand that they were unvaccinated."

The first case of COVID-19 at the Savannah River Site was logged in March 2020.

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