Oct 6, 2021 - Politics
Polis defends firings of unvaccinated but may backtrack on mandate
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stands at a mass vaccination drive in January. Photo: Chet Strange/AFP via Getty Images
Gov. Jared Polis at a mass vaccination drive in January. Photo: Chet Strange/AFP via Getty Images

Colorado's governor is embracing his role as the enforcer of COVID-19 vaccine mandates even as officials in his administration want to backtrack.

What's happening: Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order this week to make it easier to terminate state employees who refuse to adhere to his vaccine requirements.

  • The Democratic leader recently expressed support for firing unvaccinated health care workers.
  • "The majority of health care workers across the state are very relieved that a handful of their colleagues who haven't yet been vaccinated will either be gone — remove that threat from the workplace — or get vaccinated," Polis said at a COVID-19 briefing last week.

But now: The administration's public health leaders are considering a move to require only 90% of employees in health care settings to get vaccinated and ease the process of obtaining religious exemptions.

  • Relaxing the rules came recommended by a division in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that regulates hospitals and nursing homes, the Colorado Sun reports.
  • An agency spokesperson tried to downplay support for the idea, which needs approval from the Polis-appointed State Board of Health to take effect. But the associations representing the state's hospitals and nursing homes back the plan.

Context: Right now, all employees in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings must be vaccinated unless they receive a medical exemption. The deadline to comply was Sept. 30.

Why it matters: The good cop/bad cop routine is leading to widespread confusion within health care facilities, just as they prepare for increased staffing shortages.

  • A Holyoke hospital planned to fire three unvaccinated employees but abruptly placed them on leave given ongoing uncertainty, the Sun reports.

The political intrigue: The governor's tough stance also carries political implications ahead of the 2022 election.

Earlier in the pandemic, Polis won praise from conservatives for his personal responsibility approach to public health rules.

Now he is drawing fire.

  • Colorado GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown told Axios Denver that Polis should reverse his vaccine mandate and "apologize to our frontline workers."
  • "It is despicable that Gov. Polis and the Democrats in Denver are forcing hospitals across Colorado to lay off our nurses and doctors — especially those who stepped up and fought everyday during the pandemic," she said in a statement.
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