Editorial: Why are ABQ and BernCo bypassing state and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates? - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Why are ABQ and BernCo bypassing state and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates?

The messaging at times couldn’t be more inconsistent – even within the same nation/state/municipality, even coming from leaders of the same political party.

Back in July, the president of the United States announced the federal government would require its employees and contractors to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo regular testing. Noncompliance meant “progressive disciplinary action.” It was a bold and necessary step given the surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus this summer.

The federal government is the largest employer in the nation with 2.1 million civilian workers and 4.1 million contractors, so requiring them to get vaccinated or undergo frequent testing – with religious and health exemptions – not only served public health interests, it also set an example for responsible states, counties, cities and private employers to follow.

The state of New Mexico fortunately was one of them.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order in July requiring all state employees to either be fully vaccinated or otherwise submit to regular COVID-19 testing. State employees who are not fully vaccinated must demonstrate a negative COVID-19 test at least once every two weeks. Those who don’t comply are subject to disciplinary action up to termination.

“There will be no quarter for this virus within state government offices,” the Democratic governor said. “I will not tolerate any unnecessary risk within the workforce under my authority. And I strongly encourage other New Mexico government agencies and private-sector employers to consider doing the same.”

(The Journal and Albuquerque Publishing Company require employees to be vaccinated or provide a negative COVID test weekly.)

The governor in August took it a step further, issuing a public health order requiring those working in such “high-risk” settings as hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities and prisons to get vaccinated or face the possibility of losing their jobs. It also allows for exemptions on medical and religious grounds. It was a tough decision given the enormous strains placed on our doctors, nurses and other health care workers during the pandemic, as well as staffing shortages, but it was the right decision, and one thus far upheld in federal court.

Last month, President Joe Biden doubled down on his mandate requiring federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated when he eliminated the option for regular testing, while still preserving religious and medical exemptions from vaccinations. It was a smart move given the weekly national death toll is now over 2,000 for the first time since March.

The Democratic president last month also announced a sweeping new federal rule requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure every worker is either vaccinated or submits to weekly testing. OSHA is tasked with drawing up the rules over the next few weeks; it will cover as many as 100 million Americans. Even before Biden’s Sept. 9 announcement, dozens of companies, including Amtrak, Microsoft, United Airlines and Disney, issued vaccination ultimatums to most workers.

Biden said last month “a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner” on the surging COVID-19 delta variant.

Which raises the question: Given the recent decisions of Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque not to require their employees to be vaccinated, are their leaders among the “distinct minority of elected officials” keeping us from turning the corner?

Both Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque – two of the largest employers in the Metro area – have decided not only to not require their employees to be vaccinated, but also not to require them to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.

“The city is actively encouraging vaccination for all who are eligible, hosting convenient clinics at our facilities and providing paid leave to employees to get the shot,” said city spokeswoman Ava Montoya. “We continue to make getting tested and vaccinated as accessible as possible.”

Encouraging shots for its 5,800 employees is a good thing, but actually requiring them as a condition of continued employment as President Biden and Gov. Lujan Grisham have done is real leadership.

Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca recently said she decided against a vaccine mandate for the county’s 2,600 employees in part due to a fear of losing public safety employees. She, too, is urging employees to get vaccinated and offering two bonus vacation days but is stopping short of a mandate. And she believes the county has effective protections in place already, including staggered work schedules, required masking and virtual meetings.

According to county spokeswoman Tia Bland: “The county manager’s decision not to mandate employee vaccinations, at this time, also took into consideration the number of retirement-eligible public safety employees who expressed interest in retiring sooner than later, if all employees were required to be vaccinated.”

Mayor Tim Keller also cited staffing strains on public safety personnel as a reason for not implementing citywide vaccine mandates during a recent interview with the Journal.

Losing public safety employees is a legitimate concern, but the governor made no such excuse when she required State Police and corrections officers to be vaccinated, nor did Biden.

More and more, whether a New Mexican is required to be vaccinated depends on who their employer is – which makes no sense. Just as the virus respects no geographic boundaries, it doesn’t check in with individual human resources departments.

Morgas Baca says she’s prepared to revise the current policy if necessary as she monitors COVID infection rates. With the state surpassing 1,000 new daily COVID cases Thursday, the highest one-day total in eight months, hospitalizations again topping 300 and the state’s COVID death toll quickly approaching 5,000, the time to rethink the policy is now. And this time her bosses, the Bernalillo County commissioners who were elected to make the tough decisions, need to go on the record with a policy recommendation.

As for Mayor Keller, it may be a month before an election, but the virus knows no calendar either. It’s time for him to look at the data and science as well and join our national and state leaders in mandating vaccinations for city employees.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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