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Maine Hospitals Brace For Small Number Of Staff To Quit Over New Vaccine Mandate

Hollie Maloney
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Hollie Maloney, a pharmacy technician, loads a syringe with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at the Portland Expo in Portland, Maine. The Expo location, operated by Northern Light Health, is one of two mass vaccination sites that opened in Maine this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Paramedic Corey Bonnevie must get the coronavirus vaccine or quit.

He is considering the latter after 20 years in a job he said he got into because he wanted to help people. He feels he has no choice after Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday made Maine one of the first states to require health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.

Bonnevie said he is not against vaccines, but he feels COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe, pointing to a friend who developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, after getting one. (The vaccines are deemed safe and effective and while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in July it had gotten 100 preliminary reports of adults who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine developing the disorder out of 12.5 million doses given, no causal relationship has been established.)

Because Bonnevie works for MaineHealth’s NorthStar Ambulance service in Farmington, he will be required to get a shot. But the mandate will lead to a bigger negative reaction from the health care workforce than public officials may think, he said.

“Why are we, all of a sudden, being forced out?” he said. “It is the most illogical thing that we could be doing in the midst of a health crisis, and it is going to make it worse.”

Maine hospitals are bracing for at least a small number of workers to quit over the requirement, which is one of the strongest in the country, though they back it as a matter of patient safety. Bonnevie’s frustration embodies a national backlash to mandates that are coming increasingly as a more contagious variant drives up new cases almost entirely among unvaccinated people.

Maine has fully vaccinated nearly 65 percent of its population for the third-highest rate among states, according to Bloomberg News. Health care workers have been vaccinated at high rates here, with 80 percent of hospital employees and 73 percent of those in nursing homes fully vaccinated at the end of July. That still left more than 10,600 workers who were not fully vaccinated in those two types of settings alone.

After hospitals began requiring vaccines on their own, workers in states including Texas quit or were fired after a court found such mandates are legal. Resistance is building in Maine, with Maine Senate Republicans drafting a longshot bill to overturn the Democratic governor’s mandate and a protest planned outside Maine Medical Center in Portland on Saturday.

Other vaccines, including the flu shot, are already mandated in these settings. Some of Maine’s biggest health care providers, including MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, had already said they would require shots by Oct. 1 prior to the order, though some nursing homes have said they were wary of requiring shots because it might make staffing challenges worse.

It is hard to know how that will play out now, said Steve Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, which backed the mandate along with groups representing nursing homes and dentists. But he said there will be “a small percentage” who leave the workforce over it.

“We hate to see that, but keeping patients safe trumps that concern,” he said.

Mills said on Thursday an exodus of health care workers was a concern while the state was considering the mandate. But the statewide mandate for all health care facilities should prevent that if workers want to stay in their field, she said.

“It’ll help employers and health care providers and I think it will help make sure that we have the highest quality health care in the state of Maine.”

Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer of MaineHealth, said 84 percent of the system’s care team members are fully vaccinated. She said the system will continue to educate employees about the shot and make it easy for them to get vaccinated ahead of the deadline. Northern Light Health spokesperson Andrew Soucier said the system also expects a “small” number of workers may quit rather than get a shot.

How many workers share Bonnevie’s active resistance is unclear for now. But he said he is “standing strong” and plans to resist. He might even leave Maine.

“Right now I don’t feel appreciated, not by our government,” he said.

This story appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.