Lauren Morgan-Smith’s request for a religious exemption from the coronavirus vaccine came after “prayerful communication with God,” she said.
Communications at Presbyterian Healthcare Services’ PRESNow emergency clinic in Albuquerque, where she worked as a nurse, are less clear, she said. She refused a vaccination and decided too late to have a test, so she received a so-called “functional discharge” at the end of October.
Morgan-Smith, 41, said she felt that the “spit test” for unvaccinated employees was a punishment when vaccinated employees can transmit the virus.
“There was some inconsistency in the way they treated people,” she said of Presbyterians. “I don’t think people have all the information they need to know if a test is correct.”
The state of New Mexico has mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for hospital staff and workers in community care facilities such as nursing homes to help slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta strain of the disease. According to state guidelines, health care workers who refuse to be vaccinated must apply for an exemption for religious or medical reasons and undergo weekly tests. Even unvaccinated school staff must agree to weekly tests, but are not required to obtain an exemption.
Many other companies and organizations have introduced vaccination regulations, with some allowing their employees to continue working if they have an approved religious or medical exception.
Hundreds and maybe thousands of workers in the state have stayed in their jobs under derogations, but vaccination regulations have also resulted in dismissals and lawsuits.
Morgan-Smith and others claim it is a risky decision for employees to refuse vaccinations and request exemptions in order to keep their jobs.
Some see inconsistencies and injustice in vaccination regulations, what is considered an exception and how claims are handled.
Eric Sirotkin, a labor law attorney in Santa Fe, is not surprised at the different rules. Not all workplaces are the same, he said, so different rules are understandable. It is “up to each organization to set their own parameters for vaccine requirements and exemptions,” he said. “There can be things that affect one job that don’t affect another.”
“We are in very difficult times,” he added. “So there is quite a balance right now between individualism and the whole population.”
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has issued public health orders stating that rejection of the COVID-19 vaccine “puts not just individuals but the community at risk and further threats the state’s progress against the pandemic”.
New Mexico hospital leaders have urged residents to get vaccinated and more recently have a booster vaccination six months after completing their initial doses. Health officials believe that immunity to the vaccine will decrease.
Still, many people remain firm against the vaccine. Some cite religion as their reason.
Eight employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory filed a federal lawsuit last month against the laboratory and its operator Triad National Security, who announced earlier this year that they would require vaccinations against COVID-19. Plaintiffs said Triad granted them religious exemptions but then put them on leave.
That was “a precaution by dismissal,” said her lawyer Angelo Artuso from Albuquerque.
One of these Los Alamos workers, Vallerie Lambert, wrote in an email: “Many of these employees have dedicated their entire careers to this company and have simply been discarded for staying true to their religious beliefs.”
The lawsuit states that 185 laboratory workers were laid off and 153 were given unpaid leave after seeking exemptions.
Most of the lab workers who filed the lawsuit argued, among other things, that the use of abortion-acquired fetal cells in coronavirus vaccine research or production makes these vaccines unacceptable to their religious beliefs. A federal judge has ordered the case to be referred to an arbitrator.
Scientists have said that aborted fetal cells are not used in the vaccines, but fetal cell lines derived from cells acquired many years ago could be used in coronavirus vaccine research or production.
Karen Montoya, an administrative assistant at New Mexico State University who also requires workers to be vaccinated, said she asked the institution for a religious exception.
She was referring to the Bible, which says that the body is “the temple of God”. Therefore, she argues, she shouldn’t have to get the vaccinations.
“It’s like a battle between faith and medicine,” said Montoya, 53. “I don’t want to start over. I love my job.”
A handful of vaccinated employers issued statements about their vaccination and waiver numbers, suggesting that few workers have lost their jobs for non-compliance.
- La Familia Medical Center of
- Santa Fe said 98 percent of its employees were vaccinated and the others were granted exemptions based on state and federal guidelines. “None of our employees was terminated or on leave,” said spokeswoman Jasmin Milz-Holmstrup.
- Christ St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe said more than 96 percent of its workforce was vaccinated. Spokesman Arturo Delgado said 97 religious exemptions and 10 medical exemptions had been granted. Two employees did not request exemptions, refused the vaccination and were no longer in the hospital, Delgado said.
- The University of New Mexico has granted students, faculty and staff 569 medical and religious exemptions and 461 distance learning and work exemptions, said spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair. Earlier this month, the UNM “de-registered” 136 students, but has since re-enrolled some who had submitted proof of vaccine compliance, she said.
- Lovelace Health System Says
- 100 percent of the 3,600 employees have received the vaccinations or have submitted an exemption application and are now being tested on a weekly basis.
- Santa Fe public schools, like other public, private, and charter schools, require no exception for an employee to move regular COVID-19 testing over vaccination. Spokesman Cody Dynarski said 93 percent of its employees were vaccinated and no one had turned down weekly tests.
Heads of local organizations said they developed their guidelines on medical and religious vaccine exemptions by following the governor’s public health orders, as well as guidelines from the federal centers for disease control and prevention, the commission on equal opportunities in employment, and occupational safety – and health authority and other agencies.
However, these guidelines indicate that there is no simple definition of a valid exception.
The EEOC offers long explanations of what religion is all about, saying that an employer should assume that a request for exemption from religion will be “held honestly”. Religious views can be “new, unusual, not part of a formal church or sect,” the guidelines say. But political views are not considered religious beliefs.
When it comes to medical exceptions, the CDC cites a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or to any component of the vaccine as a legitimate “contraindication” or condition that makes the vaccine inadvisable for a person.
Precautions can be taken for exempt employees, e.
On the other hand, the accommodations shouldn’t pose “undue hardship” on the organization, say federal regulations.
Dr. Karl Robinson, of Albuquerque, said he had received about 25 requests from people, generally federal employees, to write medical exemptions. He rejected some of them, he said, because they weren’t justifiable.
He said he sees pregnancy as a reason for an exception, even though the CDC says the vaccines are safe for pregnant women.
Robinson, an 83-year-old doctor who practices homeopathic medicine, which uses small amounts of natural substances to treat, said some organizations require a worker to have an allergic reaction to their first coronavirus vaccination in order to receive a medical exception. And a medical certificate is by no means a guarantee that a boss will grant an exemption.
“So they stacked the cards against the applicant,” he said. “I think it’s unfair.”
He also said that in such a short amount of time, there is no way scientists can know if the vaccines are safe in the long run.
Morgan-Smith said she had a dozen years of experience as a nurse, including working in the intensive care unit. “It was really a calling for me,” she says.
After praying about it, she decided that it was inappropriate to put the vaccine into her body. She said that in American medicine, patients would be given treatment autonomy, and she is surprised that healthcare providers are not being shown the same respect during the pandemic.
“Right now, I have concerns that I will no longer be able to work as a nurse,” she said. “This is a real loss.”