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Nursing Home Staff Say Mills' Extended Vaccination Deadline, Increased Funding Could Forestall Further Closures

Caitlin Andrews
via Bangor Daily News
The Country Manor Nursing Home in Coopers Mills is pictured on Sept. 1, 2021. The home is one of three to announce plans to close this week as the industry deals with a chronic shortage of workers exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

An ongoing staffing shortage at Maine's hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of the delta variant. The Mills administration is responding by extending a deadline for healthcare workers to be vaccinated and accelerating planned increases in funding for the industry.

This week three nursing homes in Maine announced their closure. And while they had been struggling for years, observers say it's a signal that the industry may be at a tipping point in Maine.

"It's certainly a warning sign for sure and some would say it's a full on crisis. We are concerned about additional homes that may be forced to close," says Angela Westhoff, president of the Maine Health Care Association. "With the rise of the delta variant we really have a provider community who is just stretched thin and there's really not enough staff to keep the facilities functioning properly."

She is welcoming this week's decision by the Mills administration to speed up the disbursement of $146 million in state and federal funds, money the governor and lawmakers designated as a one-time boost for long-term care staff recruitment and retention. Administration officials say that means providers will start receiving boosted allotments this month - one month earlier than originally planned.

"These are the facilities on the front lines that have been hard-hit by the pandemic, and we anticipated they would need support, and the Legislature passed (the funding) on a bi-partisan basis," says Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's Commissioner of Health and Human Services.

Lambrew also announced that the governor is extending the deadline for healthcare workers to receive COVID-19 vaccines by almost a month, to Oct. 29. Health Care Association President Angela Westhoff says with some staff reluctant to get the vaccine, that could help with retention.

And she says the extra time, and the extra pay or bonuses made possible by the accelerated funding plan could help forestall further closures of facilities.

"If the resources and the timing are the two sort of ingredients that will stem the tide - I like to be an optimist by nature - but I think the situation is so dire that it really does remain to be seen," Westhoff says.

One lawmaker who sits on the legislature's Appropriations committee and watches the issue closely is Rep. Jessica Fay of Raymond. Fay says that once the immediate crisis eases it will be important focus on policies and pay-scales that will help provide long-term care for the oldest population in the nation.

"We had a workforce crisis before the pandemic. We have some idea of how e can address the issue. I don't think the state can do it alone. I think we're going to need some help from the federal government," Fay says.

Fay and Westhoff both say that among all the talk of money and mandates, it's important to remember the human costs that closures have on residents and family, staff and their larger communities.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.