New Mexico EMTs and firefighters still not required to get vaxed

DOH secretary says the state will consider including first responders in the next mandate

By: - September 23, 2021 6:00 am

Firefighters and EMTs are not required to be vaccinated in New Mexico, despite being called to occupy close quarters with both COVID patients and then other seriously ill or injured people as they transport them to the hospital. The country is divided on the issue, though slightly more people support a vaccine mandate for first responders: 55% in favor and 44% opposed. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Keith Morris had to call 911 for his adolescent son, who was having a mental health emergency. A team of medical personnel arrived quickly on scene, conducted an assessment and decided to transport the boy to a hospital.

Morris’ call to emergency services was just a couple of months into the pandemic — June 2020 — when COVID-safety practices were still fairly new to everyone.

“As a society, we were still trying to figure out what the safety protocols needed to be,” Morris said. “We were operating out of an abundance of caution at the time. They were masked — they were medical professionals — and we were masked during our interactions.”

After they loaded his son into an ambulance, Morris asked if he could ride along with him. That’s a historically common practice, said Shawn Rogers, a full-time paramedic and national Emergency Medical Services consultant. “The predisposition for most providers is to let a parent ride with the child in the back if they’re little, and in the front if they’re closer to being an adult,” he said.

It wasn’t an unusual request. Rogers said most agencies even prefer to have parents ride with medical personnel, because that reduces the liability of the provider.

But last year, Morris couldn’t travel with his son — an experience similar to many people who wanted to be with their loved ones in hospitals during the pandemic. Social distancing rules required that only essential medical personnel were permitted to be with patients in confined spaces, like the back of an ambulance.

Morris felt a little helpless, he said, but understood why the rule was enforced.

Firefighters are EMTs, too

Fire departments have been attempting to take on more medical calls in recent years, including transporting patients to hospital, Rogers said. 

Fire department administrators have been moving toward requiring more medical training for all staff because, “they recognize that they’re no longer fighting fires like they used to,” he said. “The rate of house fires and fires in general in the United States has been on a really strong downward trend for a long time.”

The National Association of Fire Chiefs said to their membership more than 20 years ago that they needed to move toward emergency medical services.  “So now, most firefighters have to be an EMT before they can even be considered for the job,” Roger said. 

But fire departments still aren’t financially rewarding the firefighters with the most medical training, he added. 

“The paramedics, who are the most highly educated people in the firehouse, are not at the higher end of the pay scale. The drivers, the people who have been through the on-the-job training to become the guy who operates the big apparatus, they’re the guys who are making most money,” he said. But, he said,  all of them are making a whole lot more money than the private agencies — like Albuquerque Ambulance. 

“The guy that was in the ambulance started taking my son’s vitals, and then they said, ‘OK, we’ll meet you at the hospital,’ ’’ Morris recounted. He asked if he could jump in, but they refused, saying “there would be too many people in a cramped space.”

Thinking back to that exchange, Morris said he’s concerned to hear that first responders — ambulance personnel included — aren’t mandated by the state to get vaccinated like other health care workers. 

Having had to sacrifice his family’s comfort and peace of mind during an especially scary and difficult time, Morris said it’s hypocritical that some emergency medical personnel opt out of the shots.

The New Mexico Department of Health mandated by executive order that all “paid and unpaid individuals who work on-site in a hospital,” including “any workers who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or COVID-19 airborne aerosoles,” be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 starting Aug. 23.

Albuquerque’s emergency medical techs and paramedics, and some firefighters, transport patients into hospital emergency rooms and regularly go into confined spaces with COVID-positive patients.

At an August anti-vax rally by and for health care workers, Source New Mexico spoke with two people who identified as Albuquerque Fire Rescue employees. They were wearing uniform T-shirts and refused to give their names, and the city would not identify them in a photo. 

They said they weren’t vaccinated — and they weren’t required to be. Why not? “We’re not in a hospital setting,” they said. 

They were right. According to Tom Ruiz, AFR spokesperson for the city, Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico are neither tracking, nor requiring, vaccinations for first responders, like firefighters or ambulance personnel.

EMTs are exempt in the state’s order,” Ruiz said in an email with Source New Mexico.

When asked how many AFR employees were vaccinated, Ruiz deferred to the Department of Health, the only entity that has complete data on vaccinations, he said, since that’s protected health information.

Rogers, the EMS consultant, said, first responders should definitely be vaccinated. “We are the front line of the front line. I mean, we’re the very first people to encounter a patient. We are the people who are going to be exposed to people with high virus loads. And we’re not going to know about it until after the fact.”

Dr. David Scrase, New Mexico’s acting secretary for the Department of Health, acknowledged during a press conference on Sept. 22 that first responders are frontline medical staff who are in close contact with immunocompromised patients as they administer care.

If an EMT or paramedic is unwittingly carrying a big virus load, and they transport somebody who is vulnerable, then the chances that that person is going to get infected go exponentially up.

– Shawn Rogers, full-time paramedic and national EMS consultant

New Mexico ambulance companies and municipal fire departments have not been asked to report vaccination rates, and EMTs and paramedics weren’t listed in the examples of health care workers covered by the vaccine mandate..

Rather, Dr. Scrase said, the state based the initial health care worker order on which facilities were already reporting vaccination data to the state.

New Mexico’s initial response to tracking COVID cases involved institutions “who either have been reporting this already — like nursing homes and assisted living facilities — or people who had the capability of reporting, because they’re already reporting a lot of other stuff, like hospitals,” Scrase said.

Not all EMTs have avoided the mandate. The Albuquerque Ambulance Service, a private company, required that every employee get vaccinated, Scrase said, even people who only answer the phones and don’t do any field work. 

Still, there are other companies running ambulances around the state, and without a mandate covering EMTs, it’s up to bosses there whether to require vaccination.

Scrase also said that not being employed by a hospital hasn’t prevented the mandate from applying to other medical providers. 

“One large hospital in New Mexico considered all of the attending physicians — who come in to see patients but don’t work for them — as falling under that rule,” Scrase said. 

But again, that’s under the authority of individual hospitals and could vary case by case.

Tanya Lattin, commander at the Corrales Fire Department, gives an N.M. resident his first dose of the vaccine in August 2021. (Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccines or weekly tests to be mandated for millions of U.S. workers (Sept. 9, 2021)

President Biden issued a vaccine order that applies to all entities that bill for Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement. 

By the time this article was published, the City of Albuquerque was still unsure whether the Biden mandate applied to AFR employees.

“The city’s legal department is reviewing the federal order to determine its impact to our workforce,”  Ruiz said in an email.

Neither Bernalillo County nor the city are requiring its employees to be vaccinated because of concerns that public safety personnel will opt to take early retirement rather than comply with the mandate, KOB reported.

“Our community depends on adequate staffing at the city for critical services, and to keep building a safer and healthier city,” Ruiz said. 

The Albuquerque city government achieved higher vaccination rates than other cities across the southwest, he added. “At the city, we actively encourage vaccination for all who are eligible, host convenient clinics at our facilities and provide paid leave to employees to get the shot,” Ruiz said. 

Morris, the dad who couldn’t get in the ambulance with his son, said the city and county are responding to an “imaginary” exodus, because threatening to quit or retire is entirely different from actually leaving your position.

“They’re saying, ‘Oh, this might happen, therefore, we can’t require it,’ ” Morris said. 

Morris added that a solution to the hypothetical problem isn’t to put the public at risk but rather to offer better pay and benefits — and do a better job with recruiting employees.

“There are recruitment strategies you can apply to that — or employee-retention strategies — that’s separate from the public safety question,” he said.

EMS consultant Rogers said shortages in the public safety and health care workforce are problems outside the scope of the vaccination issue, calling them “a very poor reason to not implement the requirement.” The risks are just too great, he said. 

Scrase said the state will look at including vaccine mandates for emergency medical personnel in next month’s public health order. 

“We will put out another public health order in the middle of next month,” he said, “and we’re adding that to the list of things to consider.”

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Lissa Knudsen
Lissa Knudsen

Lissa Knudsen was the news editor at the New Mexico Daily Lobo, following a stint as the publication’s public health beat reporter. She also worked as a data analyst for local NPR affiliate KUNM News. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy with an emphasis on racial and gender equity. Knudsen holds a bachelor's degree in health science and a master's degree in program planning and health education. She’s a critical cultural communication doctoral candidate, emphasizing reproductive justice, maternity and health. She is a board member of the New Mexico Public Health Association. Before she realized she was supposed to be a journalist, Knudsen was involved in local politics up until mid-2014, getting into hot water with her bosses as she pushed for transparency and public accountability.