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Mills stands her ground as GOP intensifies pressure on the health care worker vaccine mandate

Maine Legislature
Robert F. Bukaty
A protester against mandated vaccines for healthcare workers holds sign as legislators arrive for a special session at the State House, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

In this week’s newsletter: Gov. Mills rips GOP as it intensifies vaccine mandate critique; Pingree joins bid to expand SCOTUS; Biden eyes Gulf of Maine for offshore wind development.

Central Maine Medical Center’s announcement this week that it’s curtailing some services because some workers refuse to get vaccinated initiated the latest effort by Republican legislators and aligned advocacy groups to hobble Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in her anticipated reelection fight against former Gov. Paul LePage.

So far, the situation at CMMC isn’t forcing Mills to back down from a COVID vaccine requirement for health care workers ahead of the Oct. 29 deadline. Instead, Mills ripped GOP lawmakers for declaring that the requirement would cost lives and also for heightening the public resistance to the vaccines.

“Republicans should stop playing politics with a pandemic, and, instead, use their voice to strengthen, not weaken, public health measures,” she said in a statement. “Because if they actually want to protect the health and welfare of Maine people, then they would stand up and use their power as elected officials to tell people the truth — that the vaccine is safe, it is free, and that everyone – regardless of politics – should get vaccinated immediately. Doing anything else is an absolute abdication of leadership.”

Republicans framed the issue as an example of Mills’ strident approach to the pandemic.

“Janet Mills medical provider mandate, her unwise edict, is harming the healthcare of Mainers and it is forcing people out of work,” LePage said in a written statement. “Many medical and emergency services personnel have called for alternatives and flexibility including regular testing as opposed to Mills heavy handed mandate.”

Republican Senate leader Jeff Timberlake, of Turner, echoed LePage’s call for a testing option.

Nevertheless, the debate over the vaccine mandate for health care workers is certain to continue. GOP lawmakers this week were making the rounds on conservative talk radio programs as the Maine Republican Party continued to blame Mills for the situation at CMMC.

"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 told Maine Public.

Mills indicated Tuesday that the GOP’s call for a testing option for health care workers who don’t want to get vaccinated would likely be at odds with a forthcoming federal vaccine requirement drafted by the Biden administration for workers at health care facilities that receive federal Medicaid and Medicare funding. It’s not yet clear how the federal requirement might affect federal funding, which accounts for more than half of participating hospitals’ revenue, according to the Maine Hospital Association.

Either way, it’s unlikely that Maine’s hospitals are interested in defying the vaccination mandate. In fact, almost all of them, including the MHA, requested it and have backed Mills’ efforts to get ahead of the federal requirement.

The governor’s health commissioner, Jeanne Lambrew, also noted during a news briefing this week that most of Maine’s hospitals and health care workers are responding favorably. According to state tracking data, vaccinations at Maine hospitals jumped from 85% to 92% between August and September. Vaccination rates at assisted-living facilities climbed from 78% to 88% and 77% to 86% at nursing homes over the same period.

Additionally, some hospitals are exceeding the state averages. The Millinocket Regional Hospital is reporting a vaccination rate of 100%.

“We should recognize it is possible to fully vaccinate health care workers against a communicable disease and not have critical staff shortages,” Lambrew said.

The Mills administration has so far rebuffed Republicans’ push for a testing option, arguing that IT would not provide the same protection to workers, patients and their respective families as vaccination.

"We have had literally dozens of outbreaks in healthcare facilities -- over 300 -- as well as seen thousands of health care workers test positive for this dangerous and highly transmissible disease," Lambrew said Wednesday.

CMMC was the site of at least one of those outbreaks. Last year it was cited by federal regulators for failing to implement guidelines to protect staff and patients against COVID-19. 15 staff members and two patients contracted the disease, according to a report by a federal inspector.

Meanwhile, the pitched political fight over the vaccine requirement came against a sobering national backdrop. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 90,000 adult deaths since July likely would have been prevented through vaccination.

“Throughout this pandemic, they (Republicans) have opposed nearly every public health measure proven to limit the spread of this dangerous and deadly virus,” she said. “Now – as Maine people continue to get sick and die – Republicans want to weaken a requirement that health care workers protect people in their care by getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the same way they have to get vaccinated against other infectious diseases.”

The rhetoric will likely resonate with Republican voters who have been fed a steady stream of vaccine skepticism and outright falsehoods for months by various public officials and media personalities. The result is a deepening partisan divide over COVID vaccination. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the difference in vaccination rates between counties that voted for President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump has never been larger. It grew from 2.2% in April when the COVID vaccines were made available to most adults to nearly 13% in mid-September.

Protests over masks and vaccines intensified during that period in and outside of Maine. Some Republican officials, including several state legislators have participated in those demonstrations, which have been billed as “pro-medical freedom” and anti-mandate, but sometimes careen into outright misinformation.

That was the case in August at a large demonstration outside of the state capitol building. Rep. Laurel Libby, of Auburn, was among the speakers at that event. She declared that it wasn’t an anti-vaccine protest but a response to Mills’ vaccine mandate for health care workers.

“To be clear, this is war!” she said before imploring the health care workers in attendance to sacrifice their jobs.

“What are we prepared to do to protect our rights and the rights of all who come after us? Are we willing to lose our jobs? Are we willing to leave healthcare? Are we willing to walk out in a coordinated effort?” she said to the crowd of about 400 people. “That goes counter to everything I learned as a nurse. We do not abandon our patients. So are we prepared to do just that? Are we prepared to stand up and continue to say, 'No'? That is what it's going to take.”

Mills made no direct reference to Libby’s comments, but she did criticize GOP legislators for undercutting efforts to fight COVID-19 instead of trying to convince their constituents to get vaccinated.

Pingree joins expand-the-court movement

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine’s 1st District, is signing onto a bill that would expand the U.S. Supreme Court from nine to 13 justices.

Pingree's decision to co-sponsor the legislation comes amid increasing complaints from Democrats that the high court has become too political, too conservative and poses a grave threat on a range of issues, including voting and abortion rights.

In a statement, Pingree said she was motivated to co-sponsor the bill after the court's conservative justices allowed a Texas abortion ban to go into effect, despite the certain legal challenges it faces.

“In over a century, we have not had a more partisan Supreme Court than the one we have today. We must expand the court to balance the rightwing court-packing that happened under former President Trump,” she said. “Last month, these justices failed to act and allowed a near-half-century precedent to be discarded without a second thought. Our laws must be interpreted by neutral jurists who are driven by fact and precedent, not partisans bent on attacking our constitutional rights."

Republican Ed Thelander, Pingree’s anticipated opponent in next year’s election, called the bill “court-packing.”

“Her motivation is purely partisan, and her push to fundamentally change a branch of our government would be as divisive of a political battle as this country could possibly have,” he said in a statement. “I’m sure her court-packing plan is good for raising money from out-of-state since it’s popular with far-left activists, but it’s bad for Maine.”

The proposal faces long odds for passage because even Democrats aren't united on expanding the size of the court.

Republicans, who added three conservative justices under President Donald Trump and blocked another pick by President Barack Obama, are unified against it.

Congress can expand the court without a constitutional amendment. It's done so seven times, but not since 1869.

Gulf of Maine included in Biden’s offshore wind plan

The U.S. Dept. of Interior announced this week that the Gulf of Maine is included in the Biden administration’s plan to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.

The development roadmap also includes the New York Bight, Central Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, as well as offshore areas of the Carolinas, California, and Oregon.

According to a timeline provided by DOI, planning and analysis for the Gulf of Maine as a designated wind energy area will continue through the middle of 2023 with a potential lease sale targeted for after the first quarter of 2024.

The DOI release doesn’t pinpoint which area in the 36,000-square mile Gulf might be subject to a lease. The location will be closely monitored given that offshore wind has become a contentious issue for the Maine lobster industry, which opposed a demonstration project off Monhegan Island.

The Mills administration announced earlier this month that it has submitted a lease for the demonstration project with the University of Maine that’s designed to study whether offshore wind is sustainable, and compatible with the ocean environment.

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