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Mills Administration Requiring All Health Care Workers To Get COVID-19 Vaccines By Fall

Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the press at the Maine State House on July 13, 2021 after she vetoed a bill aiming to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters in her cabinet room, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine, after announcing she has vetoed a bill to replace the state's privately owned electric utilities with a consumer-owned utility.

As of October 1, all health care workers in Maine must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 under a new rule announced Thursday by Gov. Janet Mills. The mandate comes after weeks of urging by the Maine Hospital Association and amidst a statewide surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Health care workers in Maine have five weeks to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Governor Mills says her mandate is one of the most aggressive in the nation in terms of its scope and timeframe.

"Health care workers among us perform a critical role in protecting the health of Maine people, and it is simply imperative that they take every precaution against this dangerous virus, not simply for themselves, their own health and their families, but for the patients they serve and protect," Mills says.

The requirement applies to health care workers at hospitals, home health agencies, nursing and residential care facilities, as well as EMS providers and dental practices. Mills says current vaccination rates of staff at these facilities range from 80 percent at hospitals to 73% at nursing homes and 68 percent at facilities for people with intellectual disabilities.

"That's pretty good progress. But we can and must do better," Mills says.

Mills says Maine has to do better because of rising cases and hospitalizations. As of Thursday, the seven day average for new daily COVID cases is 163, the highest it's been since May. The number of people hospitalized is 67, more than double what it was two-and-a-half weeks ago. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah says the new rule is needed to protect workers, patients, and, "To keep the health care system as a whole intact as we experience more hospitalizations."

In recent weeks, several Maine hospitals independently announced staff vaccine requirements. But the Maine Hospital Association has been urging the Mills administration to issue a statewide mandate since June.

"When you look at the surge of the Delta variant, which we're going through right now. And also the fact that we're seeing outbreaks within health care facilities, our own hospitals, the timing couldn't be more important," says Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association.

At Maine Medical Center, 14 staff have tested positive. At Waldo County General Hospital, eight staff have tested positive. The state CDC is also investigating outbreaks at two long-term care facilities in Augusta and Gorham. Michaud says a mandate for all health care workers is important because it discourages people from taking jobs with other employers that have different rules. But he acknowledges that some health care workers who oppose the vaccine may choose to quit.

"It's a concern, but the importance of doing this to make sure that our patients are safe and our employees are safe just trumps all of that. We feel like we've got to do it in spite of the potential downside, which I hope is pretty small," Michaud says.

The American Nurses Association previously issued a statement in support of mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. The Maine State Nurses Association, a local union, doesn't take a position on a mandate specifically, but says in a statement it believes all eligible people should be vaccinated.

Groups that represent Maine physicians, dentists, and community health centers are in favor of the new requirement. Angela Westhoff of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing and assisted living facilities, says she's also confident that having the same requirement across all sectors of health care will prevent the loss of staff.

"It really just keeps the playing field level," Westhoff says.

California, Washington, Oregon and Rhode Island are among the handful of states that have taken similar measures.

When Gov. Mills was asked during a press briefing whether she was considering vaccine requirements for school staff, she said her current focus is on health care, and other professions are for another day.