FRI: Judge rules against dozens of US nuclear lab workers suing over vaccine mandate, + More
New Mexico judge denies lab workers' claim in vaccine fight—Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press
A New Mexico judge on Friday denied a request by dozens of scientists and others at Los Alamos National Laboratory to block a vaccine mandate, meaning workers risk being fired if they don't comply with the lab's afternoon deadline.
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%, the rate among lab employees and contractors is much higher. The lab said last week that more than 96% 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.
The legal challengewas backed by 114 scientists, nuclear engineers, research technicians, designers, project managers and other workers at the lab. Some are specialists and have high security clearance for the work they do, which ranges from national defense to infrastructure improvements and COVID-19 research.
The workers claim the mandate is a violation of their constitutional rights and that lab management has created a hostile work environment.
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.
Jonathan Diener, an attorney representing the workers, said the plaintiffs are considering an appeal. Arbitration also is possible pending court proceeding on the merits of the case. The workers have requested a jury trial.
"The main thing is we wanted to stop people from being thrown out of work," said Diener, expressing disappointment with the judge's decision.
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.
In extending the mask mandate, state health officials said Friday that the goal was to reduce pressure on the health care system.
"It is not time to abandon basic precautions," said Dr. David Scrase, head of the state Health and Human Services departments. "Our hospital and health care partners remain incredibly, incredibly concerned about the serious illnesses they are dealing with."
A separate public health order requiring health care workers to be vaccinated remains in place. School workers also are required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
New Mexico awards $2M contract for 'academic coaches’— Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report for America
New Mexico education officials are on track to renew a $2 million contract for a Utah-based education company to call and text struggling students, usually when they've been chronically absent from school.
State and school district officials welcome the help but haven't evaluated the program to see if it actually decreased absenteeism last year, citing the pressures of the pandemic. State officials also have allowed the company to avoid a competitive bidding process.
Last year, the New Mexico Public Education Department awarded Graduation Alliance a $4.6 million contract on an emergency basis to quickly provide what it calls "academic coaching." Branded as the ENGAGE New Mexico program, it aims at increasing student participation in school.
Graduation Alliance said it operates similar engagement programs in Michigan, Arizona, and South Carolina.
In New Mexico, the company received around 39,000 referrals from students, parents or schools last year. Around 16,000 of those students opted in for academic coaches. All told, the state spent $290 for each student that agreed to have an academic coach.
The company employs Spanish-speaking coaches and at least one Navajo-speaking coach, as well as translation services to communicate with New Mexico's diverse population. The coaches work to earn students' trust, encourage them to attend school and advocate on their behalf if they face barriers to participating in class — something the company says will be important in an in-person learning environment.
"Some people are intimidated to ask for help from a teacher," said Graduation Alliance spokesman Greg Harp, adding that students often wonder "How do I ask for help, without feeling stupid?"
But it's unclear if the program increased engagement or academic achievement last year because grades and attendance for students weren't recorded.
A July 1 report by the Public Education Department hailed the program as a success, drawing on a survey the company conducted of participating students and partial graduation data drawn from a sample of high school seniors. The names of the districts providing the data were not listed in the report, which said that 70% of the seniors who were helped graduated.
"Is it making a difference? That's something we're going to be looking at," Harp said, adding that the company will be working with districts to gather data.
A notification period for the sole-source contract ends Friday. Unless a rival company challenges the designation, the contract will be awarded to Graduation Alliance, Harp said.
Students could be referred to the program starting as early as next week. Students referred in the past will have to sign up again.
While absenteeism rates are not yet documented, districts say that anecdotally they could be higher than before the pandemic because fewer feel confident in school and more are under pressure to work jobs to help their families pay rent and bills.
State law requires schools to check on families where a student is chronically absent, including excused absences like coronavirus quarantines. That means a lot of paperwork for districts like Santa Fe Public Schools, which has a three-person team reaching out to absentee students.
In the coming weeks, they expect to refer chronically absent students to support programs including the one operated by Graduation Alliance.
"It's an extra pair of boots on the ground for doing outreach," said Crystal Ybarra, a social worker who manages community outreach for the Santa Fe district.
Because ENGAGE New Mexico's outreach efforts can be documented and shared with districts, their texts and phone calls can reduce the workload for school administrators when reporting on absent students.
Ybarra said that the district gets reports from Graduation Alliance but couldn't immediately evaluate its effect on grades and attendance.
To help students catch up, the district has set up a four-day-a-week homework hotline staffed by mostly by volunteer academic tutors.
According to the National Association of State Procurement Officials, non-competitive contracts are acceptable when a company offers a unique service that no bidder can provide. But the group recommends that states require agencies to actually check if competitors exist. The Public Education Department left blank a question on an application asking what efforts were made to ensure there were no capable competitors.
Of the four states where ENGAGE programs currently operate, only Michigan contracted the company through a traditional bid process, Harp said.
This story has been corrected to say that ENGAGE New Mexico's outreach efforts can help districts fulfill some state reporting requirements for chronically absentee students.
Attanasio 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 under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.
Deadline arrives for redistricting advice in New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
An advisory board on political redistricting is scheduled Friday to decide on its recommendations for realigning the boundaries of U.S. House and state legislative seats across New Mexico.
Recommendations of the Citizens Redistricting Committee are a nonbinding reference point for the Legislature as it enters the once-a-decade process of drawing new political boundaries.
Several states, including New Mexico and Indiana, are using citizen advisory boards to temper political inclinations without taking redistricting powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.
New Mexico's Democratic-led Legislature plans to convene in December to redraw boundaries for the state's three congressional districts, 112 legislative seats and a commission that oversees public charter schools.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holds veto authority in the process. It has been 30 years since Democrats controlled both the governors office and Legislature during redistricting.
Proposed changes to a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico are under special scrutiny.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell ousted a first-term Democrat from the 2nd District seat. The district's boundaries are likely to shift and contract to offset population gains in a oil-producing region in the southeastern corner of the state.
A proposal from the left-leaning Center for Civic Policy would create a strong Latino majority in the 2nd District by adding portions of Albuquerque into a district that currently spans most of southern New Mexico.
That proposal has fueled complaints of potential gerrymandering in favor of Democrats by packing more urban communities into a largely rural district.
New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the Voting Rights Act to preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.
Nearly 48% of state residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the highest portion in the nation.
The share of New Mexico residents who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry was 12.4%, a percentage surpassed only by Alaska and Oklahoma.
A coalition of 19 Native American communities have submitted a detailed redistricting proposal. The Navajo Nation has endorsed separate maps.
The seven-member redistricting committee, led by former state Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez, has held more than a dozen public meetings across the state and plans to endorse at least three proposed maps each for the state House, state Senate and Congress.
The committee includes former state Republican Party chairman Ryan Cangiolosi and former Democratic Senate majority leader Michael Sanchez.
Democratic state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque says he is inclined to ignore the recommendations of a redistricting panel dominated by political "elites" with no Native American members.
"My concern is following the law, being responsible, drawing maps that are fair," said Candelaria, who does not plan to seek reelection in 2024. "I have a pretty good idea of communities of interest and where lines need to be drawn."
New Mexico explores public financing for cannabis businesses - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Small-scale marijuana businesses in New Mexico would receive access to publicly financed loans of up to $250,000 in an effort to promote social and economic fairness, under a proposal unveiled Thursday.
The New Mexico Finance Authority suggested a $5 million line of credit to licensed cannabis microbusinesses, seeking preliminary approval from a panel of state legislators. The panel voted 6-5 against immediate endorsement, stalling the effort amid a variety of concerns about rules for lending to the fledgling recreational pot industry.
Under the proposal lending rules, loans would be made available to qualified cannabis "microbusinesses" that are licensed to cultivate and sell marijuana from up to 200 plants at a single location, operating much like a craft winery or brewery. That business niche was authorized in sweeping legislation to regulate and tax recreational marijuana sales, signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April.
The law requires that the state promote business opportunities for communities that were penalized disproportionately by past criminal enforcement of marijuana laws, without saying exactly how. The social-justice provisions also mandate some form of help for farmers from economically disadvantaged communities and residents of rural areas where the marijuana industry may take hold.
New Mexico Finance Authority CEO Marquita Russel, an architect of preliminary rules for the loan program, said traditional business loans are still scarce for small-scale cannabis entrepreneurs.
"They have very few options. If you are a startup cannabis microbusiness, you can't go to a bank, you can't go to the Small Business Administration," she told legislators. "There is not a space for a small business to get a loan of this sort."
The proposed loan program would be underwritten by the state's Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund, which helps stimulate the economy in remote regions of the state. Russel says the program would draw on idle loan reserves, including unspent money set aside for critical services during the coronavirus pandemic.
State cannabis and finance regulators acknowledged that challenges likely lie ahead in vetting small loan applications from unproven business in a startup industry emerging partly from the black market.
"We anticipate that most of them will not have current financial statements," Russel said.
Experienced medical marijuana companies would not qualify under proposed lending rules aimed at helping small, newly licensed growers.
Republican state Sen. Stuart Ingle of Portales warned that it may be difficult to fully recover loans from marijuana farmers and highlighted a lack of farming and ranching experience among board members at the New Mexico Finance Authority.
"There are still so many questions in here, where questions can't be answered," he said. "We may need to slow things down."
State-sanctioned recreational cannabis sales are scheduled to start no later than April 1. State cannabis regulators have received at least 22 license applications to form cannabis microbusiness, according to public records.
For the loan program to move forward, approval is needed from a legislative oversight committee and the New Mexico Finance Authority board that includes several state cabinet secretaries and representatives of municipal and county governments.
Loan applications would require collateral guarantees of repayment such as land or equipment, with loan periods of up to five years.
"We will be fully secured. These are our dollars, they need to be repaid," Russel said. "These aren't (loans) for people who just kind of decided this might be fun."
Navajo Nation reports 64 more COVID-19 cases, 1 more death - Associated Press
The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 64 more COVID-19 cases and one additional death.
The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 34,670 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.
The known death toll now is at 1,464.
"Contact tracers continue to find that many new cases of COVID-19 are due to family gatherings where people let their guard down and don't wear masks," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "We have to remain diligent and do our best to follow the guidance of our health care experts."
Tribal officials still are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel.
All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.
The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Gary Paulsen, celebrated children's author, dies at 82 - By Hillel Italie AP National Writer
Gary Paulsen, the acclaimed and prolific children's author who often drew upon his rural affinities and wide-ranging adventures for tales that included "Hatchet," "Brian's Winter" and "Dogsong," has died at age 82.
Random House Children's Books announced that Paulsen died "suddenly" Wednesday but did not immediately provide further details. Literary agent Jennifer Flannery told The Associated Press that he died at his home in New Mexico, where he lived with his third wife, Ruth Wright Paulsen, an artist who illustrated some of his work.
Author of more than 100 books, with sales topping 35 million, Paulsen was a three-time finalist for the John Newbery Medal for the year's best children's book and recipient in 1997 of the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement.
He was a Minnesota native who deeply identified with the outdoors, whether sailing on the Pacific Ocean, hiking in New Mexico or braving the cold of the Alaskan dogsled race, the Iditarod. For a time he lived in a cabin in rural Minnesota, where he finished his first novel "The Special War," and on a houseboat in the Pacific Ocean. He spent his latter years on a remote ranch in New Mexico, a bearded outdoorsman sometimes likened to Ernest Hemingway.
"I can't live in towns anymore," he told The New York Times in 2006. "The last time I was up in Santa Fe, I wasn't there 20 minutes before I brewed up, almost slugged a tourist on the steps of my wife's gallery."
Paulsen received the Newbery Honor prize for "Hatchet," "The Winter Room" and "Dogsong," about a young native Alaskan in search of a simpler past and the old ways. He also wrote hundreds of articles, poetry, historical fiction and such nonfiction works as the memoir "Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood," which came out earlier this year. His final novel, "Northwind," will be published in January by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Younger Readers.
Many readers knew him best for his "Hatchet" novels, beginning with the eponymous 1986 release, in which 13-year-old Brian Robeson survives a plane crash and lives for weeks in the wilderness, relying in part on the hatchet his mother had given him. In an introduction for the book's 30th anniversary edition, Paulsen wrote that the novel "came from the darkest part" of his childhood, when books and the woods were his escapes from the pain of his parents' miserable marriage and his own social isolation.
"On my own, under the trees or on the lake or next to the river, I was protected and as far from danger as I'd ever been," he wrote. "In the wilderness, I was at ease. I learned the rules and I not only survived, I thrived. The woods and books are the only reason I got through my childhood in one piece."
The "Hatchet" series continued with "The River," "Brian's Winter," in which Paulsen imagined an alternate ending for the first novel, "Brian's Return" and "Brian's Hunt." He also turned out such series as the Francis Tucket adventure books and Murphy Westerns.
Paulsen, who grew up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, had all too much personal experience to draw from for his work. He would recall his parents becoming so debilitated by rage and alcohol that he was essentially taking care of himself by his early teens, even hunting for his own food with a makeshift bow and arrow. He graduated from high school, raised his own tuition money to attend Bemidji State University and, in his early 20s, served in the U.S. Army. He had been a devoted reader since his teens, when he stopped into a local library on a freezing day, and in his mid-20s felt such a compulsion to write that he abruptly left his job as an aerospace engineer in California.
"The need to write hit me like a brick. I had a career and a family and a house and a retirement plan and I did all the things that responsible grown-ups do until suddenly, irrevocably, I knew had to write," he explained in the introduction to the "Hatchet" anniversary edition. "I edited a grubby men's magazine and, every night, I slaved over short stories and articles for two editors who ripped me to shreds every morning.
"They didn't leave a single sentence unscathed, but they taught me to write clean and fast. And the dance with words gave me a joy and a purpose I had been looking for my entire life."
Steven DuBois, beloved and eclectic AP raconteur, dead at 53 - By Gillian Flaccus Associated Press
Steven DuBois, an Associated Press reporter who spent two decades sharing Oregon's biggest news and quirkiest neuroticisms with readers worldwide, died Tuesday after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 53.
Quiet and self-effacing, DuBois avoided the spotlight during his more than 20 years in AP's Portland bureau but was universally respected by his colleagues for his talent and sensitivity. He wrote and rewrote his own stories, worried they weren't good enough, and frequently didn't put his name on work he felt didn't meet his standards.
As the day-to-day news supervisor, DuBois held others to those standards and mentored dozens of journalists, shaping reporters and future news managers both at the AP and elsewhere.
"If he didn't think something was up to snuff, he would send it back with just two words at the top: 'Write better,'" said Peter Prengaman, who began at AP working the night shift with DuBois in 2002 and is now the wire service's U.S. West news director.
"In those discussions and revisions, I learned so much about leads, structures, word choice and the kind of reporting necessary to make sure you have the pieces to write well," he said.
Over the years, DuBois was at the center of some of the biggest stories in Oregon, including the armed takeover of a national wildlife refuge by anti-government activists and the federal court cases that resulted from it; a mass shooting at a community college in southern Oregon; and a plot to bomb Portland's downtown square during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.
His favorite stories, though, were the odd ones.
He once chronicled a man who ate a 20-ounce steak at Morton's of Chicago every night for 103 days. He described the man, who tipped 100% on bills that topped $150, as someone "soft-spoken and down-to-earth, as ostentatious as meatloaf." The man, an environmental consultant, also fed his German Shepard, Tasha, steaks that cost $32.95.
"That was one of his best qualities: while pretending to be disengaged from the world, he was actually a great listener," said Andrew Kramer, who worked with DuBois on Portland's night shift and is now based in Russia with The New York Times.
At a wire service built around speed, DuBois had a knack for getting the illuminating details and emotional nuance that made his stories stand out.
"He could talk to anyone and get them to open up, especially the ordinary people who were baffled to find themselves, for better or worse, the subject of an AP story," said Jonathan Cooper, a Phoenix-based AP reporter who worked with DuBois in Portland.
DuBois was born in Warwick, Rhode Island, the youngest of three children. His father worked for a wholesale jeweler and traveled frequently. He was extremely close to his mother and often recalled how she taught him to read when he was 3 or 4 years old. He studied at Rhode Island College and, after some soul-searching, transferred to the University of Mississippi to pursue journalism.
His older brother, Robert "Jared" DuBois, said from a young age DuBois was fascinated with journalism, particularly sports writing. The brothers, both avid sports fans, would fight over the local newspaper to read the sports column, he recalled.
"The thing about my brother that people don't understand is that he was like a genius-level IQ as a child. At six years old, he was reading the newspaper and his knowledge about statistics was unbelievable," Jared DuBois said. "He was like a little human computer at a very young age, almost too smart for the world."
At Mississippi, he wowed his professors. One instructor said reading his writing was "like eating a rich dessert" and suggested he'd be a great statehouse reporter.
"You have mastered the art of writing public meeting stories. I really should send you off to do something more challenging. A budget story might get you going," the professor wrote.
DuBois worked as a staff writer at the Roswell Daily Record in Roswell, N.M., and later began freelancing for the AP in Providence, Rhode Island, in the late 1990s when the bureau's sports stringer quit. When Providence's then-supervisory correspondent Terrence Petty transferred to Oregon as the news editor in 1999, he was so impressed he offered DuBois a full-time job in Portland.
DuBois accepted and slept on Petty's couch for months before getting a place of his own.
DuBois "was one of the most competent, talented, dedicated, reliable and personable journalists I ever met in my four decades of journalism," Petty said.
DuBois collected friends the same way he collected stories, and they were as varied as his eclectic and wide-ranging interests.
He was passionate about music and made mixes for his friends that included favorite alternative bands such as Saint Etienne, the Go Betweens, Prefab Sprout and Style Council.
He was an avid sports fan who loved baseball and boxing, and for a few years he had a side job as an amateur boxing referee. A great conversationalist, he had encyclopedic knowledge of sports, movie and music trivia and knew quirky details of Portland history. He dabbled in stand-up comedy, bet regularly and (mostly) successfully on horse races, was passionate about karaoke and obsessed over the stock market and his Rotisserie baseball league.
He loved music, and loved curating music for friends above all else — an interest his brother Jared traced to when he would sneak into clubs as a teenager to watch his older sibling DJ.
DuBois got his first passport in his 40s and chose Sarajevo as his first international trip. He also took a months-long sabbatical from the AP and traveled around South and Central America and studied Spanish in Panama. After his cancer diagnosis, he told friends he was glad to have traveled so widely before he got sick.
Even in his final days, DuBois never left the news behind. Recently, he texted a co-worker about a Portland shooting that killed two and injured one. He quickly added he was only pointing out the story because it reminded him of a bar he went to after almost every night shift with his co-workers two decades ago — not because he wanted to create work.
"Remember this: Any time I mention news, I am only noting it as a friend," he wrote. "Never as an assignment editor!"