Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Some New Mexico health care workers have left their jobs in response to a recent COVID-19 vaccine mandate, although hospital leaders said Monday that the vast majority of their staffers were complying with the directive.
Several Albuquerque-area hospital officials also said the number of vaccinated employees increased as the Aug. 27 deadline neared to get a first vaccine dose under a new state public health order that generated both applause and vocal criticism.
Troy Clark, president and CEO of the New Mexico Hospital Association, said hospitals throughout the state have adjusted staffing schedules, asked workers to cover extra shifts and made other adjustments to cover the loss of employees who wouldn’t meet the mandate.
The association supports vaccination of the hospital workforce, he said, but losing even just a few employees adds to the pressure hospitals face, especially as they deal with a nursing shortage exacerbated by the pandemic and limited bed capacity due partly to a spike in COVID-19 patients.
“The mandate has obviously had a negative impact on a small percentage of our hospital employees,” Clark said in an interview Monday. “Right now, the demands on our hospitals are such that even the smallest reduction in the staff – whether clinical or nonclinical – has an impact.”
The vaccine mandate was included in a new public health order issued by acting state Health Secretary David Scrase on Aug. 17.
It gave 10 days – or until Aug. 27 – for people working in “high-risk” settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities and state prisons, to get their first vaccine dose if they had not done so already. The vaccine requirement, which requires a second dose within 40 days of the first dose, applies to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others but allows for exemptions on medical and religious grounds.
Of the more than 13,000 employees at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which runs nine hospitals around the state, at least 97% were either vaccinated or had qualified for an allowable exemption as of Monday, a spokeswoman said.
Presbyterian announced its own COVID-19 vaccination mandate for its entire workforce just one day after the state public health order took effect.
“Participation continues to climb, and we estimate that very few of our more than 13,000 employees will choose to go on leave due to the vaccine mandate,” the hospital system said in a Monday statement. “Although we never want to lose any of our valued employees, we are confident that we can continue to meet the health care needs of our patients and members.”
Meanwhile, Mark Rudi, a spokesman for University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, said Monday that more than 95% of the hospital’s staff is either fully vaccinated or exempt from the public health order.
“A few employees have made the decision to separate from the organization at this time,” Rudi told the Journal. “We appreciate their service and thank them for their work.”
Statewide, more than 77% of New Mexicans ages 18 and older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, and 67.5% of residents were fully vaccinated.
Several health care organizations were quick to announce support for the vaccination mandate after it was announced.
However, the vaccine requirement has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers and some health care workers, and protests against it have been held in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Roswell.
Jenna Bell, a veterinary technician who lives in the East Mountains, said Monday that she has not worked since being recently told she had to either get the COVID-19 vaccine or be tested once every two weeks.
Although veterinarians and veterinary staffers are not specifically included under the public health order that mandates vaccines, an increasing number of private employers in New Mexico are requiring the vaccine as a condition of employment.
She said she opposes the vaccine for a mix of moral and personal reasons, including concerns about fertility and breastfeeding.
“If people want to get it, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be forced,” she said in an interview.
The state Department of Health last week urged pregnant and recently pregnant women to get the vaccine and said there’s no evidence COVID-19 vaccination causes fertility problems.
Despite New Mexico having one of the nation’s highest vaccine administration rates, the state has had a surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past month due to the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
Statewide, the number of people hospitalized due to the virus climbed to 394 on Monday, a 9% increase from Friday, according to state Department of Health data. But hospitalizations were still below the August peak of 433 patients.
State health officials also reported 2,286 new cases of COVID-19 for the past three days – including 551 cases in Bernalillo County, 215 in Doña Ana County and 198 in Eddy County.
Seven more coronavirus-related fatalities were also reported, pushing the statewide death toll to 4,512.
The vaccine mandate for health care workers has prompted at least one lawsuit, and it’s posing logistical questions.
David McEachern, a spokesman for Artesia General Hospital, said a few employees at the hospital were put on unpaid leave. The hope, he said, is that they can return if they get vaccinated or there’s a change in state policy.
“My understanding is that we’re feeling it,” he said of the staffing shortage, “but we’re able to work through it.”
However, the New Mexico Hospital Association has reached out to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for help as hospitals face the financial burden of offering recruitment and retention bonuses, hiring traveling nurses and asking employees to take extra shifts to boost staffing levels, Clark said.
“Things are still very tight,” he said, “and staffing is still very critical.”