Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2021

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Nevada to require vaccines for prison guards, health workers

Commencement Ceremony in Women's Prison

Steve Marcus

A corrections officer escorts an inmate at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center on Smiley Road Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

Updated Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 | 5:37 p.m.

CARSON CITY — 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 became a political lightning rod even before its passage. In a state where more than one-third of the population 12 and older hasn’t received a first dose, opposition to the requirement fused with anger over perceived government overreach and new rules announced by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

At an emergency meeting convened by the Nevada Board of Health, officials said they were taking the advice of Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak's medical advisory team to limit the spread of the virus among vulnerable populations who interact with state workers. The requirements take 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 Biden ordered new federal vaccine requirements for groups including private-sector employees and federal health care workers to curb the variant-fueled spread of the resurgent virus. The president's executive order applies to 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 Sisolak have recently adopted more aggressive postures on vaccines and the segments of the population that remain unvaccinated.

“We can make institutional settings safer for all by requiring vaccination for employees and contractors,” the governor said on Twitter after the vote.

Correctional officers have for months warned that they would quit if forced to be vaccinated. In July, prison officials said 41.9% of staff had received vaccines. Correctional officers on Friday warned board members the requirement would cause mass resignations, exacerbate staff shortages and make it impossible to operate prisons.

“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,” High Desert State Prison correctional officer Michael Dante said of the requirement.

The measure comes as Nevada reaches another coronavirus milestone this week, topping 400,000 known cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Health officials on Thursday reported 1,115 new cases and 44 deaths from the day before, bringing the 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 10.1% in the Las Vegas area. The World Health Organization goal is 5% or less to relax coronavirus restrictions.

Nevada 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 Nevada, the number of new people electing to get vaccinated has slowed. It peaked at more than 25,000 people per day in April and dropped to fewer than 5,000 a day in July.

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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.