Vax on, vax off: the city reverses its policy

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Presbyterian Hospital nurse Claire Simons processes COVID-19 drive-thru test kits in San Mateo near McLeod NE on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the city of Albuquerque will not proceed as planned with its COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirement for employees.

Mayor Tim Keller and other officials announced last week that the city would require all of its employees to report their vaccination status by Friday, January 21. Those who weren’t fully vaccinated were going to have to start a weekly testing regimen to prove they weren’t actively infected with COVID-19. Keller had said the city was preparing to follow federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules for employers with at least 100 workers.

But the Supreme Court last week blocked the settlement.

As a result, “The City of Albuquerque is suspending implementation of a vaccination or testing policy for city employees,” Mayor’s spokeswoman Ava Montoya said in a written statement.

The city government has approximately 6,300 jobs, although hundreds are currently vacant.

Montoya said the city continues to offer employees paid time off to get their COVID-19 shots.

“The City strongly encourages employees to get vaccinated and protect themselves against disease and holds weekly vaccination opportunities for employees and the public at City facilities. The City continues to require mask-wearing for employees and visitors to City facilities and has made high-quality masks available to CABQ employees,” she said.

Keller had said last week that he would consider using his authority to implement a similar vaccine or testing policy for the city’s workforce, regardless of what the Supreme Court ultimately does. When asked on Thursday whether he would still consider such action — and, if so, what data would factor into his decision — Montoya did not provide details.

“The City continues to closely monitor the Omicron wave. Currently, the city is focused on adhering to existing federal and state guidelines and providing easy opportunities to get vaccinated. This approach has helped the City ensure reliable service delivery throughout the pandemic,” she wrote.

The vaccine mandate issue isn’t necessarily dead, as two related — and competing — proposals are still pending before the Albuquerque City Council.

Last fall, Council Speaker Isaac Benton introduced a bill that would require vaccinations for city public safety employees, such as police officers and firefighters, unless they have a documented medical or religious exemption. In those cases, the city would require weekly COVID-19 testing. This bill remains in committee. More recently, Council Vice President Dan Lewis introduced legislation that would ban the city from forcing vaccines on any of its workers. It was sent to committee.

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