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National Guard members arrive at Lewiston hospital to help with COVID surge

Jennifer Badger, system director of care management, speaks to National Guard members as they arrive at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston on Dec. 16, 2021.
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Jennifer Bodger, system director of care management, speaks to National Guard members as they arrive at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston on Dec. 16, 2021.

17 members of Maine's National Guard reported for duty at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston today. They're among dozens being deployed to hospitals around the state this week to provide relief as exhausted staff are facing the highest number of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.

A little after noon on Thursday, the doors to an empty unit at Central Maine Medical Center opened and 17 state National Guard members filed in, led by hospital staffer Jennifer Bodger. This unit, which was previously used for orthopedic and neurosurgery patients, has been closed for two months due to staffing issues. But Bodger, who oversees care management at the hospital, said that's about to change.

"Starting Monday this unit will be open with the support of you guys," Bodger said.

The 16 beds here will become a 'swing' unit for patients ready to move out of acute beds and into rehabilitation and nursing care. Central Maine Healthcare CEO Steve Littleson said the support from the National Guard will relieve a bottleneck that's currently tying up acute care beds with patients ready for discharge but nowhere to go.

"Their presence here is like a great Christmas gift. It really is," Littleson said.

Staff are exhausted, Littleson said. "[The Guard members presence] is not only practical help - we're literally gonna open more beds because they're here," he said. "But the emotional lift that the rest of our team members are getting from their presence is really fantastic."

Guard members will assist nursing staff in non-clinical roles, such as moving patients, adjusting beds, responding to call bells, and cleaning. Master Sergeant Ryan Jones said his team is ready to assist CMMC in whatever way is necessary.

"A couple month ago I was here myself, and I saw how shorthanded they are here, and I realized there's definitely a need," Jones said.

The situation at the hospital is challenging, said Chief Medical Officer John Alexander. It has about 100 vacancies for clinical roles, and another 200-300 vacancies throughout the health system. At the same time, CMMC is seeing an influx of patients with COVID.

"And I think one of the hardest parts has been seeing some of the younger people coming in and having more severe illness," Alexander said. "And that's especially challenging I think for most of our caregivers because you don't expect that to happen."

Alexander said the staff are grateful for the support from the state and the National Guard, which are scheduled to stay through Jan. 26. And CMMC is seeking other support. Next week, they're hoping the Veterans Administration will send three nurses to help care for COVID patients for a couple weeks. And an application for a federal COVID-19 Surge Response Team to provide clinical support is pending.