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Presbyterian Healthcare Services, New Mexico’s largest private employer, is requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for its entire workforce totaling more than 13,000 people.
Presbyterian’s mandate takes a new state public health order announced this week covering hospital workers and other medical service providers one step further in an attempt to stem the rising wave of the new, more contagious delta variant COVID-19 cases hitting the state and the U.S., filling hospitals and stressing the medical system.
“We take care of some of the most vulnerable people in the state of New Mexico,” said Dale Maxwell, president and CEO of Presbyterian Healthcare Services, in a telephone interview Wednesday, “and I believe … we should take every measure possible to deliver the safest environment. This is the right time to reduce risk to our patients, to our visitors and to each other.”
The state Department of Health on Wednesday required vaccinations of all hospital workers and others in health care delivery settings in New Mexico. Under the state order, those still unvaccinated must get their first dose within 10 days unless they have a qualifying medical or religious exemption.
After that announcement by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday, Maxwell said, Presbyterian decided Wednesday morning to also include all other Presbyterian employees, including clinical, clerical and health plan employees. He said about 80% of company employees are already fully vaccinated.
“We believe at Presbyterian that vaccines are the best way to combat this pandemic,” he said. “We know that vaccines reduce the spread of the infection and we know that vaccines reduce the illness of those that contract COVID-19. Any action to increase vaccines in our community, we support.”
Presbyterian is following the same timeline set out in Tuesday’s public health order, so the first dose of vaccine will be required by Aug. 27, with the second dose to be completed in 40 days.
A spokeswoman for Lovelace Health System told the Journal in an email that, per the public health order, all hospital employees, physicians, volunteers, vendors and consultants will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, effective August 27. Limited exceptions may be granted for those with a qualifying medical conditions or “religious/strongly held belief.”
“We will ensure our practices will align with the governor’s orders,” said Whitney Marquez, communications manager for Lovelace.
Meanwhile, Public Service Company of New Mexico is asking its 1,663 employees in New Mexico and Texas to be vaccinated or provide a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis before entering any of its workplaces, beginning next month.
PNM’s essential employees have been working on site “this whole time and we appreciate all of their hard work,” spokesman Eric Chavez said in a news release. Others have been allowed to work from home, although Chavez said “employees who feel comfortable can go into the office to work.”
That is set to change next month.
“As of right now, we are expecting all of our employees to be returning to the workplace on Monday, Sept. 13, giving employees ample time to get vaccinated or tested,” Chavez said. He declined, in response to an email question, to provide the number of employees currently vaccinated.
“PNM is constantly surveying the situation regarding COVID-19 in our service territories, New Mexico and Texas, as well as across the country,” the release stated. “Our top priority is to keep our employees, customers and communities safe.”
Earlier this month, Lujan Grisham joined members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, except for Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell, in urging the state’s business community to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to undergo regular testing. The governor has implemented that policy for state workers, with testing to be done on the employee’s own time and at his or her expense.
The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in New Mexico has increased “exponentially,” Lujan Grisham said during a COVID-19 update Tuesday with Dr. David Scrase, who is acting as secretary for the Department of Health and is Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department.
“I’m just very, very concerned about what’s going to happen in hospitals in the next three to four weeks, and so are all the people who run them,” Scrase said.
The governor also announced a renewed mandate for masks indoors in public places. Teachers and other school employees will also be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.
The mandates are aimed at reducing the number of unvaccinated people who become so sick they need hospitalization, thereby filling hospital beds that might otherwise go to extremely sick non-COVID patients who delayed seeking medical care during the pandemic.
“The more people get vaccinated, the less we are transmitting COVID,” Lujan Grisham said Tuesday. “It’s already too late to tell you we are not going to be in one of these contingency phases for hospitals to provide services. We’re there.”
The state reported 878 new confirmed cases Wednesday, with 353 hospitalizations – more than five times the numbers of just a few weeks ago. New Mexico has one of the lowest ratios of intensive care beds in the country.
Maxwell said Presbyterian’s main hospital downtown and Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho are at or near capacity, but there are plans in place to “surge” additional beds if needed.