Lauren Morgan-Smith’s request for a religious exemption from the coronavirus vaccine came, she said, after “prayerful communication with God.”
Communication at Presbyterian Healthcare Services’ PRESNow urgent care clinic in Albuquerque, where she worked as a registered nurse, was less clear, she said. She declined to be vaccinated and decided too late to be tested, so she received what she called a “functional firing” at the end of October.
Morgan-Smith, 41, said she felt having to do the “spit test” was punitive for unvaccinated staffers when vaccinated staffers can transmit the virus, too.
“There was some level of inconsistency in the way they were treating people,” she said of Presbyterian. “I don’t think people have all the information they need to even know if a test may be accurate.”
The state of New Mexico has mandated COVID-19 immunizations for hospital workers and employees in congregate care facilities like nursing homes to slow the spread of the disease’s highly contagious delta strain. Under state guidelines, health care workers who refuse to be vaccinated must request an exemption for religious or medical reasons and undergo weekly testing. School workers who are unvaccinated also must agree to weekly testing but aren’t required to obtain an exemption.
Many other businesses and organizations have implemented inoculation requirements, with some allowing employees to continue working if they have an approved religious or medical exemption.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of workers in the state have remained in their jobs under exemptions, but inoculation rules also have led to employee terminations and lawsuits.
Morgan-Smith and others contend it’s a risky decision for employees to refuse the vaccinations and ask for exemptions to keep their jobs.
Some see inconsistencies and unfairness in vaccination rules, what qualifies as an exemption and the way requests are handled.
Eric Sirotkin, a Santa Fe employment attorney, isn’t surprised by varying rules. Workplaces aren’t the same, he said, so different rules are understandable. It’s “up to each organization to set their own parameters” on vaccine requirements and exemptions, he said. “There may be things that impact one workplace that don’t impact another workplace.”
“We are in very complicated times,” he added. “So it’s quite a balance right now between individualism and the entire population.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has issued public health orders that say refusing the COVID-19 vaccine “not only endangers the individual but the entire community, and further jeopardizes the progress the state has made against the pandemic.”
New Mexico hospital leaders have urged residents to get vaccinated and, more recently, to get a booster shot six months after completing the initial doses. Health officials believe that’s when immunity from the vaccine begins to wane.
Still, many people remain steadfast in their stance against the vaccine. Some cite religion as their reason.
Eight Los Alamos National Laboratory employees filed a federal lawsuit last month against the lab and its operator, Triad National Security, which announced earlier this year it would require vaccinations against COVID-19. The plaintiffs said Triad granted them religious exemptions but then placed them on leave.
That was “an accommodation by termination,” said their attorney, Angelo Artuso of Albuquerque.
One of those Los Alamos workers, Vallerie Lambert, wrote in an email: “Many of these employees have dedicated their whole careers to this company, and they have been discarded simply for staying true to their religious beliefs.”
The suit says 185 lab employees were terminated and 153 were on leave without pay after requesting exemptions.
Most of the lab workers who filed the suit argued, among other things, the use of abortion-acquired fetal cells in research or production of coronavirus vaccines renders those vaccines unacceptable to their religious beliefs. A federal judge has ordered the case to go before an arbitrator.
Scientists have said aborted fetal cells are not used in the vaccines, but fetal cell “lines” derived from cells acquired many years ago might be used in research or production of coronavirus vaccines.
Karen Montoya, an administrative assistant at New Mexico State University, which also requires workers to be vaccinated, said she has asked the institution for a religious exemption.
She referred to the Bible, which says the body is “the temple of God.” Therefore, she argues, she shouldn’t have to submit to the vaccinations.
“It’s like a battle of faith and medicine colliding,” said Montoya, 53. “I don’t want to start all over again. I love my job.”
A handful of employers with vaccine requirements provided statements on their vaccination and exemption numbers that indicate only small numbers of workers have lost their jobs for failing to comply with the rules.
- La Familia Medical Center of Santa Fe said 98 percent of its employees are vaccinated, and the others have been granted exemptions based on state and federal guidelines. “None of our employees have been terminated or placed on leave,” spokeswoman Jasmin Milz-Holmstrup said.
- Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe said more than 96 percent of its workforce has been vaccinated. Spokesman Arturo Delgado said 97 religious exemptions and 10 medical exemptions have been granted. Two employees requested no exemptions, declined to be vaccinated and are no longer at the hospital, Delgado said.
- The University of New Mexico has granted 569 medical and religious exemptions to students, faculty and staff, plus 461 exemptions for remote study and work, said spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair. Early this month UNM “disenrolled” 136 students but since then has reenrolled some who filed documentation of compliance with the vaccine mandate, she said.
- Lovelace Health System says
- 100 percent of its 3,600 employees have received the vaccinations or submitted exemption requests and now are tested weekly.
- Santa Fe Public Schools, like other public, private and charter schools, doesn’t require an exemption for an employee to choose regular COVID-19 testing over vaccination. Spokesman Cody Dynarski said 93 percent of its staff is vaccinated, and no one has declined weekly testing.
Leaders of local organizations said they developed their policies 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 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies.
But those guidelines indicate there is no simple definition for a valid exemption.
The EEOC offers long explanations for what constitutes religion and says an employer should assume a religious exemption request is “sincerely held.” The religious views can be “new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect,” the guidelines say. But political views don’t qualify as religious beliefs.
When it comes to medical exemptions, the CDC cites a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or to a component of the vaccine as a legitimate “contraindication,” or condition making the vaccine inadvisable for a person.
Accommodations may be made for exempted employees, such as allowing them to work from home, erecting a barrier to prevent other employees from being exposed if they contract the virus, or letting them work in an office when fewer colleagues are around.
On the other hand, the accommodations shouldn’t place “an undue hardship” on the organization, federal rules say.
Dr. Karl Robinson of Albuquerque said he has received about 25 requests from people, generally federal employees, to write medical exemptions. He has declined a few, he said, because they weren’t defensible.
He said he sees pregnancy as a reason for an exemption, although the CDC says the vaccines are safe for pregnant women.
Robinson, an 83-year-old medical doctor who practices homeopathic medicine, in which small amounts of natural substances are used as treatments, said some organizations require a worker to have had an allergic reaction to their first coronavirus shot to qualify for a medical exemption. And a doctor’s note is far from a guarantee that a boss will grant an exemption.
“So they’ve stacked the deck against the applicant,” he said. “I think it’s unfair.”
He also said scientists can’t know in such a short time whether the vaccines are safe for the long run.
Morgan-Smith said she has a dozen years of experience as a nurse, including working in the intensive care unit. “For me, it really was a calling,” she said.
She decided after praying about it that it was inappropriate to put the vaccine into her body. She said patients in American medicine are given autonomy in how they are treated, and she’s surprised health care providers aren’t being given the same respect during the pandemic.
“At this point, I’m having concern that I won’t be able to work as a nurse any further,” she said. “It’s a real loss.”