Healthcare workers from Socorro General Hospital gathered to protest the statewide vaccine mandate for hospital workers last week.
The mandate requires hospital workers and congregate care facility workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Workers in those settings needed to have their first dose by Friday, August 27. Congregate care facility workers include people working in nursing homes, hospice facilities, correctional facilities, juvenile justice facilities, community homes, rehabilitation facilities and residential treatment centers.
The requirement was put in place in response to the slowing of vaccination rates in New Mexico and the dramatic increase in the spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks, according to the press release announcing the requirement.
Three days before the mandate went into effect, a small group of hospital employees and community members gathered with signs along Highway 60 across the street from Socorro’s hospital to protest the requirement.
Many passing drivers honked and waved at the protesters.
Jennifer Chavez helped organize the protest. She’s been a nurse at the hospital for nine years and worked there for 12. She had no plans to get vaccinated—a choice she expected to lose her job over.
“I will probably go to Texas or somewhere where they’re not requiring the vaccine. I’m not sure,” said Chavez.
ER nurse Christine Chavez is vaccinated, but was protesting because she thinks her coworkers should be able to decide whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think that if we have a horrible nursing shortage, which we already have in the past, there’s not going to be enough people to take care of the patients and that’s not fair to our patients, to get rid of our work force,” said Christine Chavez.
According to Socorro General Hospital Executive Veronica Pound, the vast majority of the hospital’s approximately 200 employees were vaccinated before the August 27 deadline and more got vaccinated over the last week. A small number of employees chose to resign due to the vaccine mandate, she said.
“Although we never want to lose any of our valued employees, we are confident that we can continue to meet the health care needs of our patients and members,” said Pound.
Hannah Jung does not work in the healthcare field, but she came to the hospital protest because she’s a student at New Mexico Tech and is fearful that a COVID-19 vaccine could eventually be mandated for her. NM Tech currently requires either vaccination or weekly proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
“I don’t even take the flu shot, so I don’t necessarily want to be forced into taking something that I don’t believe in,” said Jung. “I personally think it’s good for some people, but if you don’t want to take it, I don’t think you should have to.”
Workers can request exemptions for qualifying medical conditions, a disability that requires a separate accommodation or sincerely held religious beliefs. Several of the protesters had already applied for religious exemptions.
Stacey Gutierrez works in radiology at the hospital and expected her religious exemption application to be approved. Last year her entire department got COVID-19, except for her and one coworker, she said.
“We had to work two weeks straight during the day and then take turns taking call at night, in PPE, with no vaccines, and we both are still standing and haven’t contracted it yet,” said Gutierrez.
In a statement, Pound said the hospital respects the rights of its workforce to peacefully express their views.
“We strongly believe in the science and evidence supporting COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy,” said Pound. “As hospitalizations continue to increase and our hospitals reach capacity once again, requiring vaccinations was the right thing to do to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community while protecting our workforce and patients. By requiring the vaccine, we can ensure that we’re better protected and can continue to deliver excellent care to the communities we serve.”
Socorro County reported 24 new COVID-19 cases on August 30.
Statewide, there have been 4,505 COVID-19 deaths and 229,509 cases. There were 362 current hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the state, as of Monday, August 30.