Doña Ana County mandates COVID-19 vaccine for first responders including sheriff's deputies
LAS CRUCES – Sheriff's deputies and other first responders have been ordered to get COVID-19 shots this week.
On Jan. 29, Doña Ana County Manager Fernando Macias issued a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination directive requiring all county first responders — including certified law enforcement officers, detention center officers and employees that have direct contact with detainees — to receive the immunizations. The vaccinations are required of all paid fire and EMS staff and "strongly encouraged" for volunteer firefighters and EMT's.
In a memo, Macias wrote that the shots are mandatory "unless a reasonable accommodation is approved," and that vaccine will be available Tuesday through Thursday of this week.
The memo did not include a location, but sheriff's deputies have previously been vaccinated at Memorial Medical Center.
"It is required that, if you have not already started your vaccinations, that you be vaccinated with your first dose on one of those days, or contact Human Resources for accommodation," the memo states, adding that employees must file proof of the vaccination with HR and their departments.
"Being vaccinated is a requirement and a condition of on-going employment with the County due to the significant health and safety risks posed by contracting or spreading COVID-19," the memo continues.
As for what accommodations might be approved, the memo suggests "a history of adverse reactions to vaccines or other qualifying conditions," refers employees to the state Department of Health's webpage on COVID-19 vaccinations and instructions those with concerns related to Equal Employment Opportunity laws or the Americans With Disabilities Act to speak to the HR department.
Sheriff Kim Stewart said that some personnel at DASO received their vaccinations, which consist of two shots spaced weeks apart, at the Memorial Medical Center annex building in January, but was not sure how many had already participated.
Can vaccinations be mandated?
Macias' memo states, "This pandemic rises to the level of a direct threat as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration," citing OSHA as well as "the County's duty to provide and maintain a workplace that is free of known hazards" as authority for the mandate.
On the state's COVID-19 vaccine website, the health department says there are no plans to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for the public.
In a public health emergency, New Mexico statute says, "To protect against the spread of a threatening communicable disease, the secretary of health may isolate or quarantine a person who is unable or unwilling for reasons of health, religion or conscience to undergo vaccination." A similar provision applies for those who decline treatment for the disease.
The statute goes on to say that "an employer or an agent of an employer shall not discharge from employment a person who is placed in isolation or quarantine" for that reason.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency, enacting emergency powers under the Public Health Emergency Response Act, on March 11, 2020, when the first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, were identified in the state.
Medical first responders and frontline healthcare workers were among the first groups authorized in New Mexico to receive immunizations in a tiered rollout, based on limited supplies of two new vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States in December.
Currently, the rollout has reached the first two subgroups of Phase 1B: State residents ages 75 and older, and residents over the age of 16 who have at least one underlying condition that can exacerbate the danger of a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Law enforcement officers are included in the next subgroup, along with other frontline essential workers, but Macias' directive includes them in the vaccination directive, and Stewart acknowledged DASO personnel received their vaccinations in January.
Educators, who belong to the same subgroup as law enforcement officers, had their vaccinations halted by DOH in January after greenlighting them early in the month, leading to canceled appointments for initial doses despite the announcement last week from the state Public Education Department that schools may resume in-person learning as soon as Feb. 8. Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins attributed the confusion to "problems with internal communication."
Health department spokesman Matt Bieber said Monday that making vaccinations a requirement for public employees "is a legal question that each agency would need to evaluate with their attorneys."
However, DASO deputies are represented by the Communication Workers of America, and Paul Castañeda, a staff representative for the union, said vaccine mandates are not provided for under the deputies' collective bargaining agreement.
"It's a tricky question," he said, since the issue is not addressed in the contract, but he added: "Our position is that it's subject to bargaining." He said that CWA was still gathering information about the matter and had not decided on further steps.
A total of 174,550 positive cases had been confirmed in New Mexico as of Monday night, of which 104,125 (60 percent) have been designated as recovered while 3,295 cases ended in death.