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Support For Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccines Growing Among Maine Health Care Employers

Virus Outbreak Nursing Homes
Yuki Iwamura
FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2021, file photo, CVS Pharmacist Gerard Diebner administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a nursing home resident at Harlem Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, a nursing home facility, in Harlem neighborhood of New York.

More health care organizations in Maine are announcing support for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers. The push to require vaccinations has been mounting this week.

The U.S. Veterans Administration issued a mandate for its frontline health care staff, and more than 50 national medical groups are pressing for a universal requirement.

One of the latest groups to voice support is the organization that represents Maine nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Angela Westhoff, executive director of the Maine Health Care Association, says the vaccination rate among staff at nursing homes is more than 70% overall, which is higher than the national average. But there's a wide range from facility to facility. Some have rates that are down in the 30% to 40% range.

"And we hope that this statement helps raise awareness levels and to increase the vaccination rates for long term care workers," Westhoff says.

Westhoff stresses that the Maine Health Care Association supports long term care facilities that choose to mandate the vaccine.

She says they'll revisit whether to support a blanket mandate once the FDA gives full approval to the vaccines. That's expected to happen sometime between now and January.

And when it does, Millinocket Regional Hospital will require staff to get either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. It's the first hospital in Maine to announce a mandate.

"One my colleagues even said, 'Why do we have to be first?' And I said, 'Why can't we be first?'" says Todd Phillips an infection prevention nurse.

Millinocket Regional Hospital is also number one in the state for its vaccination rate. Phillips says it's close to 95%. But with the Delta variant becoming an increasing threat and data that confirm the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, he says the hospital owes it to the community to boost their vaccination rates even higher.

"You know, our service area is about 10,000 people. We've got to do right by them. We have to do right by them. And difficult leadership and difficult decisions is part of doing that right thing," he says.

Larger hospital systems so far are reticent to take the plunge into mandatory vaccinations.

Northern Light Health and Central Maine Healthcare each say their focus remains on voluntary vaccination and education. MaineHealth says it's discussing a mandate and FDA approval is a factor. Meanwhile, the organization that represents hospitals is pushing for a statewide requirement.

"Ideally, we would like to see the state mandate vaccines for all health care workers in all settings, so it isn't just hospitals or not just nursing homes," says Steven Michaud, executive director of the Maine Hospital Association.

He says a statewide mandate would discourage workers from switching jobs as well as protect the most people.

The two unions that represent nurses in Maine also support vaccine requirements. The Maine CDC has said it's premature to comment on mandatory vaccinations without full FDA approval. Regardless, Michaud says the Delta variant is creating a sense of urgency.

"With the conversations that I'm having with our members, we're moving down this road. It's jut a matter of time and how it's done," he says.