New Mexico prison officer facing dismissal for refusing vaccine takes county to court

A prison officer in New Mexico is taking a county to court over a requirement for him to take a coronavirus vaccine, or face being sacked.

In a complaint filed in a federal court on 26 February, officer Isaac Legaretta disputed the legality of a Dona Ana County directive for employees to take vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Mr Legaretta, according to the complaint, claims the county was violating federal law, and cited the emergency authorisation process used by the FDA to approve vaccines for Covid-19.

The case noted that clinical trials, which officials will use to decide whether to fully license vaccines, are still underway — and could take two years to carry-out.

All three vaccines currently being distributed across the US have been approved for emergency use (EMU) by the FDA, which the body is allowed to do during the public health emergency brought by Covid-19.

Nor have Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer or Moderna — the three coronavirus vaccines approved for use in the US — applied for full approval from the FDA, the regulatory body for vaccines.

Mr Legaretta’s complaint also argues that federal law — or civil liberties under The Bill of Rights — preempts state laws or local requirements such as the directive for all Dona Ana County employees to take vaccines.

“[The] defendants’ failure to comply with the federal law clearly is an obstacle to the purpose of the federal law, which is to allow people to not be compelled to take an unapproved drug or vaccine,” the complaint argues.

The officer is also seeking an injunction against county officials from firing him before a ruling is issued on the directive, a lawyer, N. Ana Garner, added.

Responding to the complaint, Dona Ana County attorney Nelson Goodin said the county stood behind its policy.

He also cited FDA guidance on employers being able to require vaccines for staff, with exceptions for religious or medical reasons.

Mr Goodin said a handful of waivers have already been issued for county employees but most have been vaccinated.

“We’re doing our best to protect the inmates in our facility, we’re doing our best to protect the employees who work in that facility and coworkers as well,” said Mr Goodwin.

“That’s the driving force — provide a safe workplace and safety for inmates who don’t have the choice to go home and quarantine.”

The county currently has the highest concentration of Covid-19 cases in the state, with 152.16 per 100,000 testing positive for the virus, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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