By SAM METZ AP / Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada officials voted on Friday to require state employees who work at health care facilities and prisons to get inoculated against COVID-19 or face administrative leave or reassignment.
Like other requirements enacted to contain the resurgent virus, the mandate has already become a political lightning rod and subject to accusations of government overreach in a state where more than one-third of the population 12 and older hasn’t received a first vaccine dose.
At an emergency meeting convened by the Nevada Board of Health, officials said their intent was to limit the spread of the virus among vulnerable populations and increase the percentage of the population that’s vaccinated. The requirements will come into effect Nov. 1 for prison and health care facility employees who don’t qualify for religious or medical exemptions. Board members did not say how many employees the mandate would apply to.
The decision comes a day after President Joe Biden ordered new federal vaccine requirements for groups including private-sector employees and federal health care workers to increase vaccination rates and curb the variant-fueled spread of the resurgent virus. The president’s executive order will apply to roughly 80 million workers at businesses that employ more than 100 people and 20 million federal employees and contractors, including at health care facilities that receive federal funds.
Both Biden and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak have adopted more aggressive postures regarding vaccines and particularly the segments of the population that remain unvaccinated.
DuAne Young, Sisolak’s policy director, appealed to employees’ dedication to public service and sense of duty, which he said should prevent what he called “insubordination.”
Employees of the Nevada Department of Corrections warned the board of health that the requirement could prompt mass resignations, exacerbate staff shortages and make it impossible to operate prisons. Since at least December, correctional officers have warned that they would quit before being forced to be vaccinated.
Correctional officer Michael Dante said up to 75% of staff at High Desert State Prison in southern Nevada weren’t vaccinated.
“If they say, ‘OK, you don’t have a job anymore,’ then 75% of your workforce is gone. Then that means the National Guard is going to have to come in and run the prison. That’s going to be a mess itself,” he said.
The requirement comes as Nevada reaches another coronavirus milestone topping 400,000 known cases of COVID-19 this week since the pandemic began.
Health officials on Thursday reported 1,115 new cases and 44 deaths from the day before, bringing the state Department of Health and Human Services tally to 400,349 cases and 6,681 deaths since March 2020.
Test positivity, a measure of the number of people who test positive for COVID-19, has decreased to 12.2% statewide after surging to 16.4% in mid-August. The rate remained high Wednesday in and around Reno, at 19.4%, but was reported at 10.1% in the Las Vegas area. The World Health Organization goal is 5% or less to relax coronavirus restrictions.
The state has vaccinated almost 60% of its adult population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It ranks near the middle of the pack among U.S. states, ahead of neighboring Idaho (53.1%) and behind California (68%).
Amid mask mandate and vaccination rule protests, particularly in rural parts of the state, daily numbers of people getting shots have been slow after peaking at more than 25,000 people per day in mid-April and dropping to fewer than 5,000 a day in mid-July.
AP writer Ken Ritter contributed to this report from Las Vegas. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.