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Maine EMS Providers Overwhelmingly Oppose Vaccine Mandate During State Meeting

Virus Outbreak Vaccine Utah
Rick Bowmer
Salt Lake City firefighter Mark Peterson receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccine clinic for EMS workers Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Emergency Medical Service workers in Maine spoke out in overwhelming opposition against the Mills' Administration's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers during an emergency board meeting Monday. The virtual meeting drew nearly 700 people and dozens of speakers, most of whom say they support the vaccine but oppose the mandate.

Many who spoke at the meeting say they personally have been vaccinated, but they oppose the mandate because they believe it will have unintended consequences. Instead of giving those who are vaccine hesitant the final nudge to get the shot, they argue, it will instead nudge them to leave their jobs. The deputy fire chief of Fort Fairfield, Cody Fenderson, says he expects to lose a third of his 24-member department come October 1, when all health care workers in Maine are required to be fully vaccinated.

"This is going to severely cripple my service as well as many of the other services in our area," Fenderson says. "And as some of you may know, our department was formed during the pandemic because we needed the ambulance coverage."

Some first responders say the losses will be even more catastrophic. Miles Villalobos, acting paramedic chief for Pleasant Point EMS, which serves the Passamaquoddy tribe, says the mandate could very well collapse the rural EMS system.

"I'm struggling to keep my service as a service. We're currently working with three providers, and at this rate, with this mandate, the vaccine mandate, we will lose 100% of our providers," Villalobos says.

The fallout could even extend to those who are vaccinated, says Tom Chisolm, fire chief for the Southwest Harbor Fire Department. He says employees are already experiencing burnout, which will only get worse if their ranks are depleted any further.

"My fear is that not only will I lose a third of my department because of the vaccine mandate. I'll lose the rest of it because they won't be part of a failing entity anymore," Chisolm says.

To prevent staffing losses, several urged the Board to seek a compromise and allow EMS providers who choose not to get vaccinated to follow strict rules for wearing PPE such as N95 masks and undergo regular testing. Justin Ladolce, the fire chief of Georgetown, was among several people who questioned how many cases of COVID-19 have been spread through EMS providers.

"We've been doing this a year and half, and I believe, in my experience working professionally as a paramedic in Maine, we have done a good job. So show me the data," Ladolce said.

Roughly 75 people offered public comment during the meeting, and just a handful were in favor of the vaccine requirement - a fact which disappointed EMS provider Sean Holshouser.

"We can't just do one thing. We can't just keep our apparatus disinfected. We can't just wear PPE. And we can't just get the vaccine. I think we need to be doing everything we can in the best interest of the public we serve," Holshouser said.

The fire chief for Westbrook, Andy Turcotte, spoke as an individual but said he also supports the mandate.

"We're required to have certain vaccines to go to school or to be able to work in the health care field. I look at this no differently, especially because Pfizer has received approval from the FDA. While I do believe in personal choice for most things, there are times we have to look at the greater good," Tircptte said.

After hours of public comment, the EMS board deliberated. Some, including Joe Kellner, addressed questions that were raised, such as whether it's truly necessary for EMS providers to be vaccinated if they wear PPE.

"I requested data from the EMS office, and I was stricken that we do have data that shows we've had 98 clinicians that, while positive, have cared for over a thousand patients. I do think that is important," Kellner said.

Other board members pointed out that those who spoke during the meeting represent just a fraction of the 5,600 EMS providers across the state, some of whom privately expressed support for the requirement. Ultimately, the Board was limited in what it could do in response to the vaccine mandate. By a vote of 9 to 7, it decided to adopt a draft rule that narrows their enforcement of the mandate. It removes the requirement for dispatchers to get the vaccine, and extends the time to become fully vaccinated by two weeks. The Board will also create a resolution that urges the Mills administration to involve EMS stakeholders while reviewing a formal rule.