For about 10 days, Mayor Tim Keller was for a city-employee COVID vaccine-testing mandate. Then he was against it.
After months of unnecessary delays, in the middle of a global pandemic, Keller finally did the right thing after being re-elected and announced Jan. 11 the city would require all of its 6,300 budgeted workers to report their COVID-19 vaccination status by Jan. 14. Those who couldn’t prove they were fully vaccinated would have to commit to weekly testing starting Feb. 7 or risk being placed on unpaid leave.
It was a reasonable accommodation that provided employees a vaccination out while protecting public health. In New Mexico 6,317 people have died of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic — around the same number as the city workforce — and the Department of Health reported last week about 89% of all who died in the last year were not vaccinated.
The mayor’s take-back announcement came almost six months after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order requiring all state employees, including State Police and corrections officers, to either be fully vaccinated or submit to regular testing. Using the cover of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Keller administration reversed course and paused the implementation of its vaccine-or-test policy.
Yet the Supreme Court ruling blocked the implementation of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules on large employers; it didn’t preclude employers, be they state, municipality or private sector, from mandating vaccines or regular testing. The governor did not reverse course.
Mayoral spokeswoman Ava Montoya said the city “is pausing the implementation of a vaccination or testing policy for city employees” and will continue strongly encouraging employees to get vaccinated. At this point in the pandemic, that’s like strongly encouraging children to eat their vegetables.
And the issue isn’t going away anytime soon. Council President Isaac Benton introduced a bill last fall that would require vaccines among the city’s public safety employees unless they have a documented medical or religious exemption, in which case the city would require weekly COVID-19 tests. Council Vice President Dan Lewis recently introduced legislation to prohibit the city from mandating vaccines for any of its workers. Both are at the committee level; a clash of philosophies seems inevitable with the newly constituted City Council.
The mayor needs to get off the fence and make it clear which side he’s on. The governor has strongly encouraged other governmental agencies to consider mandating vaccinations or testing, but that memo has apparently escaped the 11th floor at City Hall.
Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca said in September she decided against a vaccine mandate for the county’s 2,600 employees in part due to a fear of losing public safety employees. At least she was honest and owned it. And Morgas Baca said last fall she was prepared to revise the policy based on COVID infection rates. Back then, a thousand new cases a day was a record high and hospitalizations were half of what they are now (Tuesday we hit 678). The state set new records for COVID cases three days in a row last week, topping out at 6,198 new cases Friday.
Given the spread of the omicron variant, it’s also time for Bernalillo County to re-evaluate its COVID policy.
You can’t go to a game at the Pit without proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test, and Albuquerque Public Schools is allowing no more than two fans per player at sporting events. Yet, if you work for the city or county, you can interact with the public all day long without being vaccinated or needing to show proof of a recent negative COVID test, even as daily cases top records and hospitals implement crisis standards of care.
Where is the Metro area’s leadership? Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are ground zero of the virus’ spread in New Mexico — 129,691 cases as of Tuesday.
The mayor and City Council, and county manager and County Commission, need to take an honest look at the data and science and go on the record with a policy that puts residents’ health and safety first.
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.