Los Alamos National Laboratory has been on the forefront of vaccine research during the coronavirus pandemic, but three dozen employees don't feel that gives the lab the authority to compel them to get inoculated and are suing to block the vaccine mandate.
The employees are challenging an order the lab's primary contractor, Triad National Security LLC, imposed in August requiring all eligible workers to be immunized or else face possible firing.
They contend the order infringes on their rights and, in some cases, threatens to exacerbate medical problems.
Lab Director Thom Mason, lab Medical Director Sara Pasqualoni and Triad are named in the 259-page lawsuit, which is the latest legal challenge to vaccine mandates within New Mexico.
Attorney Jonathan Diener, who's representing the employees, argued the vaccine causes adverse reactions, sometimes more severely in those who already have suffered a bout of COVID-19. He added the mandate itself is a violation of personal liberty.
"It [mandate] is invalid because people have the right to make their own medical choices," Diener said in a phone interview. "It's not just a question that they're basing it on the wrong science, they're also violating constitutional principles."
Lab officials, who typically don't comment on pending litigation, didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In an August memo, Mason announced all regular employees, new hires and on-site contractors and subcontractors would be required to get the full series of shots, and those who failed to do so could be fired.
The order coincided with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision to grant full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for people who are 16 and older, giving those who opposed vaccination one less reason to refuse the shots.
"To meet our laboratory's critical mission requirements amid rising COVID-19 case rates in northern New Mexico and beyond, we must protect the entire work force from the spread of this potentially severe disease," Mason wrote at the time. "The best tool we have is vaccines."
The FDA's official approval of the Pfizer vaccine coupled with the increasing number of infections prompted the lab's mandatory vaccination, Mason wrote.
At the time, the lab estimated only 15 percent of the workforce remained unvaccinated.
Diener said although Triad is a private contractor, it is tied enough to government entities that it must abide by laws limiting the degree to which the government can force medications on people.
The lab has mainly followed state Department of Health guidelines throughout the pandemic, such as wearing masks, social distancing, contact tracing and quarantining of infected or exposed workers. The compulsory vaccination also is in line with state directives to inoculate those in critical jobs, which Mason stated in the memo applied to virtually the entire workforce.
Ten months ago, the lab reported its first COVID-19 death after logging almost 200 cases among employees during the 2020 outbreak.
The state adopts its guidelines, including for vaccinations, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
Both cite extensive medical research showing vaccines reduce a person's chance of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus.
Diener said he finds the CDC and NIH untrustworthy, and was dismissive of what he called its skewed and unreliable research.
He pointed to citations in the lawsuit that claim other studies indicate vaccines cause adverse reactions and don't make a person less contagious.
The lawsuit contends some employees with health conditions were worse off getting vaccinated and that they were given no real exemption even if they had doctors backing them.
Only those who could prove religious exemptions were given a pass, the lawsuit said. Employees seeking medical exemptions were generally denied it and put on unpaid administrative leave, it said.
Regardless of the claims, the litigation will face an uphill legal battle, as courts have been siding with vaccine mandates.
A federal judge recently ruled in favor of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's order requiring health care workers, teachers and other employees in jobs with a high risk of exposure to be immunized.
The judge cited a 1905 case — Jacobson v. Massachusetts — in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state had the authority to require smallpox vaccinations for every resident.
Diener argued this precedent was set before basic civil liberties were legally established, such as women having the right to vote, making it outdated.
There have been rulings since then, including from the high court, that fall on the side of people's right to refuse medication, he said.
"Jacobsen has limited validity 110 years after its decision was made," Diener said.
Still, those choosing not be vaccinated are becoming an increasing minority.
As of Wednesday, about 80 percent of adult New Mexicans have received at least one dose, and 70.5 percent have completed their series of shots.