As the mandate by Gov. Janet Mills that health care workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 takes full effect, hundreds of workers at hospitals and other health care providers are resigning or getting fired for refusing the shot. But most are choosing to get vaccinated rather than lose their jobs.
The mandate took effect Friday and now health care systems are trying to replace workers in a labor market plagued by acute staffing shortages.
At major hospital systems such as MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, compliance rates were at about 98 percent or higher, while Central Maine Healthcare’s compliance rate was about 95 percent.
MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other hospitals in the state, is expected to lose about 350 to 400 workers, representing about 1.5 to 2 percent of the health system’s 23,000-employee workforce. MaineHealth worker absenteeism caused by COVID-19 peaked at about 450 per day last winter, before vaccinations were widely available.
Steven Littleson, the president and CEO of Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston, said in a statement that 156 workers, representing roughly 5 percent of the system’s 3,000 affected workers, were fired or resigned because of the mandate.
“It will take a long time to replace 156 experienced team members,” Littleson said in a statement. “In the meantime, the staffing crisis has led us to temporarily suspend inpatient pediatric admissions and our Special Care Nursery. We continue to deliver babies of 35 weeks or more of gestational age rather than 32 weeks and up. We are evaluating other services on a shift-to-shift basis, including our ability to accommodate elective surgery.”
Andrew Soucier, spokesman for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, said 195 health care workers resigned, and the system had 98.11 percent compliance before the mandate kicked in.
“An additional 191 employees will have a period of time to reconsider vaccination before their employment with Northern Light Health ends,” Soucier said.
MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta lost 191 employees, or about 4 percent of its workforce, over the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate that requires health care workers to be fully vaccinated by the end of last week.
Joy McKenna, a MaineGeneral spokeswoman, said a number of logistical moves by the hospital means that “we believe we will remain able to maintain services” despite the loss of employees to the mandate.
The health care mandate is not only affecting hospitals, but also other health care providers, such as nursing homes and group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Todd Goodwin, CEO of John F. Murphy Homes in Lewiston, which operates group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities, said a combination of workers getting their shots at the last minute and state flexibility in how the homes operate allowed them to avert a crisis this week. Goodwin said that last week, when 65 of 350 workers were unvaccinated, he was getting ready to tell families of 8-10 residents that they would lose placements in group homes.
But 16 workers unexpectedly got their shots last week, and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services permitted John F. Murphy Homes to allow some group homes to have workers sleep at the homes overnight. Goodwin said that helps stretch out workers to cover more hours at homes that are staffed 24/7.
“We’re still operating on a very thin edge,” he said. “But we are very pleased we didn’t have to serve notice on anybody. Now we need to get staffed back up.”
Angela Westhoff, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said that five nursing homes and one assisted-living facility have had to close since the mandate was announced in August, and she anticipates 5-10 percent of the workforce will leave rather than comply with the mandate.
Westhoff said the mandate is kicking in during what is already a difficult environment for nursing homes to find workers.
“We’ve had a long-standing staffing crisis that’s been around since long before COVID hit,” Westhoff said. “We’re competing with every other sector. We are struggling to find workers. Just go to your local coffee shop, and you will see signs in the window saying ‘Closed, we need more workers.’”
Meanwhile, Maine is gearing up for federal regulators to give final approval this week for vaccines for children 5-11. Pharmacies, doctor’s offices and school clinics are expected to launch soon to get “shots into arms” perhaps as soon as later this week.
“Maine’s initial allocation (this week) of COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds is expected to be 33,900 doses, which would be enough to provide first doses to approximately 42 percent of Maine residents who would become eligible if the U.S. CDC authorizes the Pfizer vaccine for that age group,” said Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman. “Pharmacies and federal programs in Maine may receive additional doses. Subsequent allocations are expected to arrive on a weekly basis.”
VACCINATION RATE JUMPS
Vaccinations for those 12 and older have increased substantially in Maine in recent weeks, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said in a tweet.
“Stat of the Day: 97 percent. That’s how much COVID-19 vaccination rates have increased in Maine over the past two weeks,” Shah said. “Maine is now administering about 7,600 shots per day. About 25 percent of those are boosters, while 75 percent are primary series.”
Though vaccinations are increasing, hospitalizations also remain high. On Monday, 212 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, including 76 in intensive care and 41 on ventilators.
Chris Bouchard of the Kennebec Journal contributed to this report.