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Maine CDC To Step Up Eligibility Enforcement As Questions Surround MaineHealth Employee Vaccinations

Paul Sancya
Associated Press file
In this Jan. 5, 2021 file photo, a health care worker receives a second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Beaumont Health in Southfield, Mich.

State health officials say they’ll be more aggressive in ensuring that providers only administer the COVID-19 vaccine to those who are eligible.

MaineHealth has come under scrutiny for administering doses to employees who work from home in the early stages of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. But the state’s largest health system says it’s standing by its decision to vaccinate all staff against COVID-19.

During a news briefing Tuesday, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said that the state will hold providers accountable if they skirt guidelines for administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are reiterating that our guidelines are requirements. We are saying in multiple forms of communication that failing to follow these guidelines could be a violation of the provider agreements which set up the terms for them getting the vaccine,” she said.

Lambrew fielded several questions during the news briefing about MaineHealth’s decision to vaccinate all of its staff — including those who don’t interact with patients — under Phase 1A of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The commissioner laid out a timeline of how guidelines evolved. About two weeks into the process, in late December, she said, the department learned that hospitals had quickly vaccinated patient-facing employees and were moving to non-patient-facing employees.

“We indicated our concern, our strong concern about that, when we knew that there were community-based doctors and nurses that had yet to get vaccinated because they were not part of a hospital system,” she said.

Lambrew says DHHS clarified that patient-facing providers should get the vaccine. And later, she says, the Department removed health care personnel who don’t work with patients from eligibility.

“In recognition of the fact that we just didn’t have enough vaccine and we wanted to prioritize older people at risk of severe illness and death,” she said.

But Mainers 70 and older were prioritized the week of Jan. 18. And MaineHealth says that by that time, it had already administered first doses to all employees — patient facing or not — who wanted the vaccine.

In a statement issued Tuesday, MaineHealth insists it has adhered to guidelines at all times. The health system says if it hadn’t vaccinated all employees, it wouldn’t be able to staff its vaccination sites, because employees who had been working from home have been redeployed for at least part of their weekly shifts to those clinics.

But MaineHealth did acknowledge that it had erred when it administered doses to a small number of out-of-state contractors in mid-January. The individuals were brought in to Maine Medical Center as the hospital faces an effort by nurses to unionize.

The Mills administration requires that those who get the vaccine are Maine residents, because doses are allocated to states based on population.

In a statement released Tuesday night, Gov. Janet Mills sharply criticized the move.

“Vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn,” she said. “That was an inexcusable act. I am glad they have recognized their error and have committed to following our strategy, as is required of all vaccine providers in Maine.”

Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said the agency is keeping an eagle eye on the rollout to ensure doses are administered to those who are prioritized. But with a large-scale vaccination effort that will put more than two million doses into arms over the coming months, he said the road will be bumpy.