• The San Juan Daily Star

Health official doesn’t see need for new local laws to protect employees who refuse vaccination

Puerto Rico Health Dept official Dr. Iris Cardona

By The Star Staff

Island Health Department official Iris Cardona said during a House Labor Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday that actions by certain employers to force their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, under threat of being fired, contravenes the voluntary nature of vaccination.

She, in turn, pointed out that in situations where there is a threat to public health and the common welfare, there are other measures that can be implemented.

“It is necessary to point out that certain workers must comply with vaccination recommendations, such as the health sector,” Cardona said in a discussion of House Bill 795, which would ban discrimination in employment on the basis of a refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The pediatrician said it is not necessary to create new local laws since there are federal regulations that address discrimination and protect workers during the pandemic.

“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released an updated and expanded technical assistance guide related to the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing issues arising under the federal equal employment opportunity laws,” she said.

Cardona noted that technical assistance answers questions about COVID-19 only from the perspective of EEOC laws and indicates that federal laws do not prevent an employer from requiring workers to be vaccinated.

“However, in some circumstances, federal law may require the employer to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who, due to a disability or religious belief, are not vaccinated,” she said.

The EEOC stated in its recommendations that, as a reasonable accommodation, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace could wear a face mask, maintain physical distancing, or have the opportunity to telecommute or work from home.

In turn, the Health Department spokeswoman stressed that there are currently laws that establish minimum vaccination requirements. She referred to “[t]he origin of Law No. 25 of September 25, 1983, which establishes minimum vaccination requirements for public and private school students, and whose intention is to protect the health and well-being of the entire school community, by protecting them from contagious diseases that occur particularly in children,” she said.

Cardona stressed that immunization with a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is a critical component in the strategy to reduce COVID-19-related illness, hospitalizations and deaths, as well as help restore social functions.

“Our mission is to stop the chains of transmission of the virus and delay contagion, with the aim of stopping the spread,” she said. “From the point of view of public health and as an agency with the constitutional duty to safeguard the health of the people, then it seems convenient to stimulate vaccination at all levels, provide the necessary information and education so that all Puerto Ricans have the opportunity to make an informed decision and receive the proven benefit of vaccines without the need for new local laws on aspects already taken care of by existing federal regulations.”

The state epidemiologist, Melissa Marzán, noted that within the surveillance of the Health Department there is an initiative entitled “COVID-Employer,” which offers support to employers on the protocols that must be followed in work settings.

“Among the measures, we continue to recommend the use of masks regardless of vaccination status,” Marzán said. “Hygiene stations and keeping your distance are recommended. In matters of community transmission, we recommend conducting tests for work teams. We do not rely on any single measure when it comes to creating communities where risks associated with COVID-19 can be minimized.”

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