Governor announces vaccine mandate for state workers

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico will require state employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face regular testing as the state endures a spike in cases driven by the more contagious delta variant.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announces Thursday that all state employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear a mask and undergo regular testing. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order Thursday covering about 17,000 state workers, and vowed to encourage other employers – such as school districts and colleges – to issue a similar mandate.

“We’re not safe if we’re not vaccinated,” the governor said in a news conference at the Capitol. “It’s as simple as that.”

Under the order, state employees who are not fully vaccinated must be tested every two weeks and wear a mask when working indoors, with exceptions for eating and drinking.

Failure to comply can result in disciplinary action, including termination. The order takes effect Monday.

Lujan Grisham is also evaluating whether to mandate vaccination as a condition of employment in certain high-risk settings under her executive authority – a move that would mean some employees would not have the option to choose testing over vaccination.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in New Mexico have doubled over the past three weeks, reaching 140 patients Thursday. The number of daily cases has also exploded as health officials plead for more people to get vaccinated.

The Department of Health reported 401 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and one more death, pushing the official coronavirus-related death toll to 4,408 residents.

New Mexico’s vaccine mandate for state workers comes after similar announcements in New York and California. President Joe Biden on Thursday announced that federal employees will have to sign forms showing they’re vaccinated or conduct weekly testing.

In New Mexico, state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce accused Lujan Grisham of “overstepping her authority and having government make personal choices for its citizens.”

The mandate, he said, is unjustified and “a slap in the face to hardworking state employees.”

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, suggested Lujan Grisham should focus on getting more state employees back to work in their offices.

“New Mexicans,” he said, “should reasonably assume they can count on government to work for them instead of … being discouraged to complete necessary business due to the hurdles in contacting any government office in the state.”

About 65% of New Mexicans 18 and older have completed their vaccine shots.

In some state facilities, Lujan Grisham said, about 80% of employees are vaccinated.

But she said she is shooting to exceed 90% in the state workforce. Some people will be exempt for religious or medical reasons.

Native American communities in New Mexico, Lujan Grisham said, have achieved incredibly high vaccination rates, including 98% at Sandia Pueblo.

“We know that’s achievable,” she said, “and our goal is to get as close to those kinds of numbers as we can.”

The governor added that she is confident the vaccine-or-testing mandate can withstand a court challenge.

She said she hopes the state’s move will be an example to private employers and other public agencies. The executive order doesn’t apply to teachers, but Lujan Grisham said she hopes school districts will issue their own directives.

Despite the spike in COVID-19 cases, the governor said she doesn’t expect New Mexico to reimpose capacity limits on businesses.

Nonetheless, she called the sharp growth in hospitalizations a “very troubling trend.”

“I will do what it takes again to keep New Mexico safe,” Lujan Grisham said.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase encouraged New Mexicans to take the delta variant seriously, noting that it’s much more contagious than other strains of the coronavirus. It seems to emerge in “clusters” of people, sweeping quickly through an entire family.

“The attack rate of the delta variant is three to five times higher than what we’ve seen up to this point,” Scrase said. “This indoor masking – this extreme caution – is really important.”

The Department of Health announced that, starting Monday, New Mexicans will be eligible for a $100 incentive for getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Register at vaccineNM.org to be eligible. The incentive will last through August.

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