Phoenix pauses COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers
PHOENIX (AP) — Phoenix paused implementation Tuesday of a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the 14,000 workers in the nation’s fifth largest city, just hours after a federal judge temporarily blocked President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a mandate for those employed by federal contractors.
The pause was announced shortly before a planned afternoon hearing to discuss the city’s plan to get all city employees inoculated against the virus by Jan. 18. It was the latest standoff around the country over federal guidelines for the vaccines that have been challenged by more than a dozen lawsuits nationwide.
In the court decision earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge R. Stan Baker in Georgia issued a nationwide injunction against the Biden administration’s mandate for federal contractors, ruling that the president probably exceeded his authority by issuing it.
Despite the decision by Phoenix to pause, the meeting went ahead as scheduled and several hundred noisy anti-mandate activists demonstrated outside and impassioned city workers and residents on both sides of the issue called into the meeting to share their views.
“I find it deplorable what you are doing to our employees here,” said caller Merissa Hamilton, a former Phoenix city worker and past unsuccessful candidate for mayor.
“You need to end the mandate not just put it on pause,” she said, addressing city council members who also called in by telephone to attend the meeting aimed purely to collect public comments without any action scheduled. Hamilton earlier had been outside among the demonstrators.
Several public safety employees said getting the vaccine should be a personal choice.
City Manager Jeff Barton said in November that all Phoenix employees would need to be vaccinated so the city can comply with the rules created by the Biden administration because the city has federal contracts.
Mayor Kate Gallego has said the mandate is the city manager’s decision to make, not City Council’s. But she made clear during Tuesday’s session that she supports vaccinations and encouraged all city workers to get them, noting that 24 Phoenix employees have died from COVID-19 AND 49 city firefighters are currently out on COVID-19 leave.
“The vaccine is overwhelmingly effective,” she said, calling it “the best tool we have.”
City Councilwoman Ann O’Brien had suggested the forum, which comes as the city’s police and firefighter unions push back on an announced vaccine mandate. O’Brien has called the vaccine requirement “a complete overreach of the federal government” and says she is not anti-vaccine, but anti-mandates.
A number of high-profile medical professionals called into the meeting to argue in favor of the mandate, including Dr. Marjorie Bessell, chief clinical officer at the Banner Health, saying that a Nov. 1 vaccine deadline for the regional hospital network had led to near-complete compliance.
“We are in a crisis that will not be done soon,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association. “The pathway to mitigation is to get people vaccinated. Policy decisions can make a huge difference.”
The Phoenix police and firefighter unions have joined a lawsuit filed by Arizona Attorney Mark Brnovich seeking to invalidate federal vaccine rules, arguing that the mandate will drive first responders out of their profession.
A similar mandate in Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, has been more successful with nearly all the city’s workers now at least partially vaccinated.
Arizona health officials on Tuesday reported 3,015 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 172 more virus deaths as related hospitalizations continued to increase. The latest numbers pushed the state’s pandemic totals to 1,298,091 cases and 22,271 known deaths.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations statewide rose to 2,800 as of Monday, the most during the current surge, according to data on the Department of Health Services’ coronavirus dashboard.