An ambulance pulls out of the bay at UNM Hospital in late August. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)
New Mexico still hasn’t issued a vaccine requirement for firefighters, emergency medical technicians or paramedics, despite the state recognizing that they are health care workers and, as a matter of their employment, are required to provide direct patient care and enter hospital emergency rooms.
In September, Dr. David Scrase, New Mexico’s acting Department of Health secretary, said he thought all individuals who go into the hospitals — including those who transfer patients into hospital emergency rooms — should be considered for the vaccine mandate.
As of Wednesday, Oct. 27, however, first responders still aren’t included in the state-level vaccine mandates. Scrase said this is due to a shortage of people in those positions and that first responders tend to be more resistant to vaccination mandates than other health care workers.
“We continue to talk with those groups,” he said, “but they’ve traditionally been more conservative about issues related to personal freedoms versus societal public health.”
On Oct. 18, City Councilor Isaac Benton, who represents Downtown Albuquerque, introduced an ordinance requiring at the city level that public safety employees (firefighter EMTs and paramedics, and law enforcement officers) to provide proof of COVID vaccination or — in the event of a documented medical or religious exemption — proof of negative COVID testing on a weekly basis.
Benton has a history of being critical of the fire department and its union, and the proposed mandate is not supported by all of the councilors.
Councilor Don Harris of Four Hills said he doesn’t generally support vaccine mandates, and this issue should be addressed through the annual contract negotiations between the unions and the city administration.
“Something like this would have to go through the collective bargaining process,” Harris said. “Council has no authority to interfere in that process.”
Justin Cheney, president of the local firefighters’ union, said a vaccine mandate won’t help the city right now.
“We would be in a crisis if the city decided to terminate people’s employment because of vaccine mandates,” Cheney said. “We are right now at a lower staffing than what we are supposed to be at. We’re requiring our firefighters to work more hours with what we call ‘forced overtime.’ So, I couldn’t imagine them doing it.”
Cheney said Albuquerque ambulance is the contracted agency for the city to transport patients.
“And if they had enough adequate staffing, and the hospitals had enough beds — or there wasn’t such a layover of transferring patients — then we wouldn’t have to transport as much,” Cheney said.
Thomas Ruiz, a spokesperson for Albuquerque’s Fire Rescue, said consistent with national trends, AFR is taking more medical calls than ever before.
All of the city’s firefighters are trained to take medical calls, he added, with 470 trained as EMTs, and 209 trained at the paramedic level. Paramedics are authorized to start intravenous lines, administer medications and intubate people who aren’t breathing on their own, while EMTs can administer CPR, glucose, and oxygen, according to UCLA’s Center for Prehospital Care.
Annually, the percentage of medical calls for AFR ranges from 85% to 90% of the total call volume, Ruiz said, and this year has had an even higher demand.
Cheney said that given the working conditions he’s concerned that firefighters will resign or take early retirement.
“We’re fearful that if this is a mandate, that we will end up losing firefighters and will be worse off than we have been in the last year and a half,” he said.
Nationwide, despite walkout threats, mass resignations have not played out after health care worker vaccine mandates, but calls for service are at an all time high across the state, and public safety is a top issue for many Albuquerque residents this election cycle.
Multiple contacts and disease spread
Union leadership is not taking a bold stance on patient safety, according to Christina Sandoval, daughter of late State Rep. Edward Sandoval, who was in an ambulance several times before he died from COVID in March.
His daughter said people who are in jobs where they regularly come into contact with patients who are immunocompromised — or where they themselves are at greater risk — should be vaccinated. She mentioned nursing home staff, first responders and nurses as examples.
“I do feel that people who are in contact with this awful disease should be vaccinated,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval said her dad’s death didn’t just impact him, of course. It impacted their entire family.
“I’m a single mom. I adopted through foster care in 2011, and so he and my mom were basically my co-parents,” Sandoval said. “He was the father figure to my sons. And it has been very difficult on them.”
Sandoval said her father caught coronavirus in a nursing care setting and had to be transported via ambulance on multiple occasions.
“He was transported four or five times between hospitals and rehab facilities during the time that he had COVID,” she said. “And every time he was moved to a different location — because the severity of his condition was changing so often — he was putting those first responders and their families at risk.”
At that time, vaccines still hadn’t been distributed, she said.
“Had he given COVID to someone doing their job, and they passed it onto their parent or their grandkid, I would feel horrible,” Sandoval said. “I know, (my dad) didn’t want anyone to experience what he experienced.”
PPE and new protocols
Tim Burn, the press secretary for the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C, said the parent organization to the local union strongly encourages all firefighters and emergency medical personnel to get vaccinated but stops short of supporting vaccine mandates.
“We urge state and local governments to work hand in hand with our affiliates and negotiate to the fullest extent allowed by law to ensure the health and safety of our members and the communities they protect,” Burn relayed on behalf of the organization.
Local union President Cheney said first responders are not likely to contract or transmit COVID because they use personal protective equipment when they interact with patients and have special protocols for patients that are known to be positive for the disease.
“We’re using the precautions that have been set forth by the medical professionals with wearing our gowns, our goggles, our masks, and our gloves,” he said. “We’ve been taking those precautions ever since COVID started.”
As a way of mitigating exposure, Cheney said when AFR responds to people they suspect might be COVID positive, they try to limit the number of responders that interact with those patients.
When someone in need of emergency services is confirmed as being COVID-positive, he said, AFR sends as few people as possible. The call comes in, and one or two responders head out to make contact with the patient and determine their needs.
These protocols predate the vaccine and were instituted largely to make the best use of scarce PPE, particularly N95 masks and gowns, which were in short supply.
This adjustment in protocol has stayed in place despite PPE being readily available, Cheney confirmed.
“There is no shortage of PPE right now in the city,” he said. “We have an adequate supply.”
Early on in the pandemic New Mexico was among the first in the nation to implement stay-at-home orders and other coronavirus-prevention strategies, but with the mayoral election less than a week away and crime surging to unprecedented rates, the city has been less aggressive than other localities across the nation when it comes to vaccine mandates.
The mayor’s spokesperson Ava Montoya said Albuquerque’s lack of vaccine requirements for municipal employees is in line with Bernalillo County and the public school system. She said the city’s union negotiations are different from the state’s.
“We have different unions and workforces than the state and other employers, as we provide day-to-day services,” Montoya said. “Our community depends on adequate staffing at the city for critical services.”
The city has also been questioning the legality of vaccine mandates, she said, and the Legal Department is reviewing Councilor Benton’s proposed resolution.
Experts say that concerns about legality are probably not founded.
The U.S. Supreme Court, despite having a conservative majority, declined to hear multiple cases that question the constitutionality of COVID vaccine mandates. This has held true for the health care worker mandate in Maine, the staff and student mandate at Indiana University and the teacher mandate in New York City, the Washington Post reported.
The Mayor’s Office and half of the City Council seats are up for election Nov 2. The proposal is slated to be heard in the Public Safety Committee.
A previous version of this story named the wrong Council committee destination for the ordinance. The bill has been referred to the Public Safety committee.
The November Public Safety (PSC) committee was canceled. Council staff advise checking the CABQ Legistar website every Friday afternoon to confirm what committees will meet and whether that bill is going to be on the next PSC agenda.
This story was updated to reflect the correct information on Monday, Nov. 8.
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