Dozens of Scientists, Others Could Be Fired After Judge Won't Halt COVID Vaccine Mandate

A legal challenge backed by dozens of scientists and other employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory to block a vaccine mandate was denied by a New Mexico judge Friday, putting the workers at risk of termination if they don't adhere to the vaccination deadline by the afternoon deadline.

More than 100 scientists, nuclear engineers, research technicians, designers, project managers and other employees joined the attempt to block the mandate. Several of the employees are specialists with high security clearance, performing functions from national defense to infrastructure improvements and research on COVID-19.

In the filing, the workers argue that the mandate violates their constitutional rights and is creating a hostile workplace.

New Mexico COVID
New Mexico has extended a mask mandate for indoor spaces across the state, citing high levels of community spread. Above, first lady Jill Biden, second from left, and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, visit a vaccination center at First Choice Community Healthcare—South Valley Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on April 21. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

The case comes as New Mexico extends a mask mandate for indoor spaces across the state, citing persistently high levels of community spread. Nearly 263,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state since the pandemic began in 2020.

While the vaccination rate among adults in New Mexico continues to hover around 71.5 percent, the rate among lab employees and contractors is much higher. The lab said last week that more than 96 percent of workers had at least one shot, but it's not known how many have since become fully vaccinated, how many have requested exemptions or how many could end up being fired for declining the shots.

Attorneys for the lab argued in court Thursday that being vaccinated was a condition of working at Los Alamos. Lab management had announced the vaccine requirement in August.

State District Judge Jason Lidyard agreed, saying unvaccinated employees will have to find work elsewhere.

The lab has declined to comment on the lawsuit and has not answered questions about the vaccination rate among employees or how many exemptions have been approved. For those who are granted religious exemptions, they will be placed on leave without pay.

The workers backing the lawsuit have argued that the high degree of scrutiny required of them when working with nuclear weapons or other high-level projects has not been applied on the vaccine front, despite the lab's extensive modeling work for the state on spread and other COVID-19 related trends.

The lawsuit cited statements made over the last year by top officials in the U.S. and with the World Health Organization in which they noted that there is more to be learned about how the vaccines reduce infection and how effective they are when it comes to preventing infected people from passing it on.

Los Alamos lab on its website touts the breadth of its scientific capabilities, saying it has been helping to answer questions about the pandemic. That includes tracking the virus' evolution, predicting spread through modeling, developing reopening strategies for schools and future vaccine development.