© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Mills rejects Maine GOP's call to ease vaccine mandate after Lewiston hospital cuts services due to staff resignations

Virus Outbreak Hospitals Prepare
Robert F. Bukaty
Medical personnel discuss patients that had been admitted for testing for the coronavirus at the entrance Central Maine Medical Center on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. U.S. hospitals are setting up circus-like triage tents, calling doctors out of retirement, guarding their supplies of face masks and making plans to cancel elective surgery as they brace for an expected onslaught of coronavirus patients.

Lewiston-based Central Maine Medical Center has temporarily cut back services due to the loss of staff who have quit because of Governor Mills' COVID-19 vaccine mandate. That's prompted state Republican lawmakers to ask their Democratic colleagues to convene the legislature and loosen the mandate for health care workers. Republicans want to allow unvaccinated staff to undergo regular testing instead of being terminated from their positions.

On Monday, Central Maine Medical Center temporarily suspended cardiac, trauma, and pediatric admissions. By Tuesday, the suspension on cardiac admissions was lifted, but the Lewiston-based hospital says the situation is fluid and will be evaluated every 24 hours. And more changes are coming. On Oct. 25, CMMC will close its neonatal intensive care unit. In a written statement, hospital officials say the reduction in services is due to the resignations of more than 80 staffers. Republican Minority leader Jeff Timberlake says he's alarmed by what's happening.

"This is serious to the health and welfare of the people of the Lewiston Auburn Androscoggin area that I represent," Timberlake says.

Timberlake was among several lawmakers who spoke to CMMC on Friday about the loss of staff due to the mandate. To stave off further cuts in services, he and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham sent a letter to Democratic leaders Tuesday, urging them to convene the legislature to amend Governor Mills' mandate. Timberlake says he wants to allow a testing option for health care workers who don't want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"From what I'm hearing from around the state and some conversations I'm having in private, they're all looking for a solution to this problem and testing seems to be something they're willing to accept," Timberlake says.

Democratic Senator Ned Claxton was also on the call with CMMC officials last week. Claxton, a retired physician, says the loss of staff and reduction in services at the hospital is concerning. But he says staffing shortages at CMMC have been a long-standing issue, and the mandate is highlighting the problem.

"I support the mandate. I support the intent of the mandate. I just think the timing is really unfortunate for CMMC. And I've already made the idea that maybe we could delay a month or two as an idea. I've made that available to the Administration and DHHS," Claxton says.

Gov. Mills issued a written response to the letter late Tuesday, criticizing Republicans for consistently opposing public health measures that limit the spread of COVID-19. She says testing is not nearly as effective as vaccination to protect peoples' health. Mills says that her administration will do everything within its power to ensure access to health services if Central Maine Medical Center employees refuse to be vaccinated.

Not all hospitals are facing such dire staffing shortages as CMMC. MaineHealth says its vaccination rate is 94%, and that is has lost 100 out of the system's 22,000 employees to the mandate. In a written statement, officials say they continue to support the mandate as the best way to protect patients, workers, and the community.

At long term care facilities, it's unclear how the vaccine mandate will affect staffing. The president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, Angela Westhoff, says she's anxiously awaiting updates to vaccination rates. As of August, they were hovering around 78%.

"We've always anticipated that there will be some turnover when the vaccine mandate is enforced. We hope that that number is low. But until we have good data on that, it remains to be seen," Westhoff says.

Health care workers have until this Friday to get the single dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine. That's the last chance to be fully vaccinated by the time the mandate is enforced on Oct. 29.