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Politics

Mills says it’s ‘all hands on deck’ as unvaccinated COVID patients swamp Maine hospitals

Virus Outbreak Maine
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
A pharmacy technician loads a syringe with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at a mass vaccination site at the Portland Expo in Portland, Maine.

In this week’s Political Pulse: The partisan tug-of-war over vaccinations; funding for a third destroyer at BIW illustrates the politics of defense spending; U.S. Energy chief continues to push for CMP corridor; a booming, but uncertain, state revenue forecast.

On the 628th day of the pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills declared that Maine hospitals were on the verge of the nightmare scenario public health officials have feared since Day 1.

Hospitals are jammed full of COVID patients. Most of them are unvaccinated. Some are being held in emergency rooms for days or sometimes weeks. Some are being treated in chairs lined up in the hallways, MaineHealth’s Dr. Christine Hein told reporters Wednesday. In some cases, obtaining a bed is made possible only by someone else’s death.

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“Just as of this morning, 23 of our 25 beds are filled, and the only reason we have a couple of beds is because we’ve had a couple people die in the past 24 hours,” Dr. Ryan Knapp of Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway said.

Mills described the situation as a tipping point. On Wednesday, she activated the National Guard to alleviate pressure on a health care system hoping to stave off implementing what’s known as crisis standards of care, a legal and ethical strategy for health care providers to essentially ration care to save the most lives possible. In some instances, that means postponing elective surgeries -- something that’s already happening in some hospitals. In more dire circumstances, it’s a scoring system used to decide which patients receive lifesaving medical procedures and which ones are treated with pain medications until they recover or die.

“There's still too many people who haven't gotten their first shot,” Mills said. “It's not fair to the rest of the population who've gotten fully vaccinated, who've done their part and who don't want to be deprived of the ability to get a hip replacement or other health care access. It's not fair to them. It's not fair to anybody.”

She added, “If everybody does their part we're going to level this thing off and address it as a team. It's all hands on deck right now.”

But in Maine, and across the country, all hands are not pulling in the same direction. Instead, it’s a partisan tug of war.

In a message to supporters Thursday, the Maine Republican Party framed Mills’ calling up of the National Guard as the result of staffing shortages at health care facilities.

“Those staffing shortages were exacerbated by Mills’ vaccine mandate (for health care workers) - which has seen bipartisan opposition,” the Maine GOP said.

Health care staffing has been a problem in Maine and nationally amid the surge, which is why Mills asked the federal government to send health care workers, a request that was fulfilled on Thursday. However, that’s not the primary reason why hospitals are being forced to convert emergency rooms into intensive care units or treat patients in hospital hallways. It’s COVID patients -- predominantly unvaccinated COVID patients.

At Northern Light Health on Wednesday, 83 of the 105 hospitalized COVID patients and 33 of 38 ICU patients were unvaccinated; likewise, 10 of the 11 patients on ventilators were unvaccinated. Further illustrating this disparity: just over 69% of all Maine residents are fully vaccinated against COVID, meaning the vast majority of hospitalized patients come from the minority of unvaccinated individuals.

Similar statistics are reflected across Maine’s health care system.

The case for vaccination seems persuasive: According to the U.S. CDC, unvaccinated adults’ risk of hospitalization is nine times higher than a vaccinated adult. The risk of death for unvaccinated adults is 14 times higher.

Yet, those numbers have not convinced the unvaccinated to get their shots. Health experts say access to vaccines is an issue in some cases, but the largest barrier is hesitancy fueled by misinformation.

The source of that misinformation was the focus of a series of NPR stories published this week that highlighted the partisan divide in vaccinated adults and the devastating consequences in rural, often conservative, counties.

"We find a huge correlation between belief in misinformation and being unvaccinated," the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation public opinion researcher Liz Hamel told NPR.

A lot of the misinformation is coming from conservative media and some GOP politicians, resulting in the partisan disparity revealed in Kaiser’s surveys. Here’s an excerpt from NPR:

“Kaiser's polling found that 94% of Republicans think one or more false statements about COVID-19 and vaccine safety might be true. Over the past eight months, Hamel has watched as Republican vaccination rates have fallen further and further behind the rest of America. While Republicans tracked with other groups in terms of vaccination rates earlier this year, Kaiser's research shows that now, an unvaccinated person is three times as likely to lean Republican as they are to lean Democrat.”

An NPR analysis suggested that pro-Trump counties — defined as 60% or more of the 2020 vote — across the U.S. have higher death rates. The correlation in Maine is not entirely clear because only two counties went 60% or more for Trump.

The report also found that misinformation fueling the vaccine resistance has been aided by an alliance between anti-vaccine activists and pro-Trump Republicans.

Maine residents need not look far to see evidence of this alliance here at home. Maine Public and the Pulse have documented several instances of Republican state lawmakers speaking at events that featured anti-vaccine activists like Christian Northrup, who is considered one of the leading purveyors of vaccine disinformation in the country, and author Naomi Wolf, who has bizarrely and baselessly asserted that the COVID vaccine changes people’s DNA and loads people’s bodies with tiny robots equipped with 5G antennas.

While high-profile Republicans have largely steered clear of these events, they’ve said little or nothing about their GOP colleagues who attended them, even when those same lawmakers used offensive Nazi and Holocaust comparisons to describe vaccine mandates for health care workers.

For the most part, Maine Democrats have avoided publicly criticizing Republicans who platform or legitimize views like Northrup’s or Wolf’s. The same has been true of the GOP’s increasingly infrequent participation in pro-vaccination persuasion efforts.

Mills noted the absence in October when she responded to the GOP’s efforts to modify her vaccine mandate for health care workers.

“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.”

On Wednesday, Mills avoided making the current hospital crisis partisan. Instead, she lamented the vaccine uptake in rural areas and the resulting tragic consequences when she discussed talking to people in her hometown of Farmington.

“When I walk around my town and go see people … there's still a bit of a sense of it can't happen here,” she said. “But it can happen here and it is happening here. I think about 45 people who have died just in western Maine in one 60-day period recently. Forty people in two or three small hospitals in western Maine. That's a lot of people, a lot of our friends and neighbors who died with COVID, most of whom were not vaccinated.”

She added, “So, I guess getting the message out there is a big part of what we have to do.”

A little help from the congressional delegation

Bath Iron Works received welcome news this week with the announcement that a defense spending bill being finalized in Congress will authorize three new Navy destroyers next year.

The Navy had proposed buying just one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in fiscal year 2022 while listing a second ship as the agency’s top priority on an unfunded wish list. With just one new ship up for grabs, BIW risked losing the contract to competitor Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi, which has consistently produced ships for cheaper in recent years. Such a loss has workforce implications when you’re talking about ships that require years to build.

How the Navy went from asking for one $2 billion destroyer to getting three ships is an example of how defense policy is hugely influenced by national and international politics as well as local economic interests.

With more than 6,000 workers and a massive supply chain, General Dynamics-owned BIW is among Maine’s largest private employers. The shipyard only produces destroyers — the so-called “workhorses” of the Navy fleet because of their versatility and firepower.

Supporting BIW and its jobs is pretty much a prerequisite of Maine delegation members these days, regardless of their political affiliation. And delegation members have historically sought posts with direct oversight of the Navy or the Navy budget.

Both Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, for instance, sit on the powerful appropriations committees that decide how federal money will be spent. Collins also serves on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

Sen. Angus King and Rep. Jared Golden, meanwhile, serve on their chambers’ respective Armed Services Committees as well as the subcommittees that oversee Seapower (so, ships).

Uncoincidentally, Mississippi lawmakers also serve on those committees and subcommittees, as do members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation due to the economic importance of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

In a joint letter last spring to newly appointed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, seven members of the Maine and Mississippi congressional delegations talked about the strategic importance of destroyers in the face of the rapid expansion of the Chinese navy. They urged Austin to “commit to a larger and more capable Navy” but also added this not-so-subtle reminder:

“Ultimately, Congress is responsible for annual DOD and Navy authorizations and appropriations,” reads the March 2021 letter. “As members of our respective chambers’ Appropriations and Armed Services Committees, we will continue to support expanding the fleet in order to protect our national security and safeguard our prosperity in an increasingly contested international security environment.”

So when news emerged two months later that the Navy only proposed one new destroyer, members of the two delegations fired off another letter — this one to President Joe Biden — saying they were “surprised and dismayed” while vowing to use their positions to oppose any reduction.

They succeeded in not only reinserting the second ship but also an unrequested third vessel in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Golden, who is vice chair of the House Armed Services Seapower and Force Projection Subcommittee, said the idea of three ships “seemed impossible” earlier this year, so three ships was “great news for American national security and the Maine shipbuilders.”

“The Biden Administration had proposed just one destroyer next year, breaking their multi-year procurement contract with the shipyard and leaving BIW without certainty they’d get even a single ship,” Golden said in a statement. “It could have led to significant layoffs at BIW.”

It will be up to congressional appropriators (Collins, Pingree and their committee counterparts) to actually budget the roughly $6 billion for the three ships. And BIW may still have to compete to build the third ship.

Destroyers weren’t the only things added back into the defense spending plan, however.

Lawmakers also authorized 12 new F/A-18 Super Hornets despite the fact that the Navy said it wants to end production of the fighter jets. Instead, the Navy wanted to spend the money on development the next-generation of aircraft.

“Corridors of national interest”?

Next Wednesday, the Business and Consumer Court will begin hearings on Central Maine Power’s constitutional challenge of Question 1, the referendum that halted construction of its $1 billion transmission corridor.

While it’s unclear how CMP will fare in its arguments, the corridor project continues to have the support of the Biden administration.

Before the Nov. 3 referendum, Dept. of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm urged voters to support the corridor with a “no” vote on Question 1. Granholm reiterated her agency’s backing in a recent story in the Boston Globe, and appeared to suggest that the administration was eyeing ways to see it to fruition.

The Globe report centered on two setbacks to Massachusetts’ climate change goals, of which the corridor is one. The project is designed to help the Bay State meet its renewable energy targets, which is why it even exists and also why Massachusetts electricity ratepayers are financing it.

“That one’s a disappointment,” said Granholm, referring to the referendum result. She went on to reference a new program that was shoehorned into the infrastructure law ratified by Congress that allows the federal government to designate transmission corridors of “national interest.”

It’s not clear if Granholm was suggesting that the federal government was planning such a designation for the CMP project. However, she did tell the Globe that her office was “going to sharpen our pencils and see how we can continue to help push that (the CMP project).”

Spokespeople for the Department of Energy did not respond to Maine Public requests to interview Granholm to clarify what precisely she meant.

So far, supporters and opponents of the project in Maine aren’t saying much about it, either. Nevertheless, the political implications of such a designation by the federal government would be significant, especially if it ended up overriding a decisive referendum vote by Maine residents.

State coffers are flush – but for how long?

The 2022 legislative session begins in less than a month, and one of the big issues facing lawmakers will be how to spend (or not spend) all of the additional tax revenues flowing into the state’s coffers.

Maine’s nonpartisan Revenue Forecasting Committee is projecting the state will take in $822 million more in revenue for the 2022 and 2023 budget years. That’s a whopping 9.7% increase, on par with the “dot-com boom” of the late-1990s, before that bubble burst.

But as one of the state’s revenue forecasters recently warned lawmakers, this is not your typical economy.

"We can't forecast the pandemic, which makes forecasting the economy even more difficult," said Mike Allen, associate commissioner for tax policy. "And so, it's just we're in a volatile environment and it's really just our way of saying we're fairly comfortable in the next six to eight months."

That uncertainty is going to complicate negotiations between the Mills administration and legislative Democrats and Republicans over what to do with the projected windfall. Those negotiations and the ultimate outcome will become part of next year’s election campaigns.

Republican legislators are calling for “giving money directly to Mainers,” and Mills has made clear that she wants to “provide direct financial relief” to people impacted by rising fuel, electricity and basic living costs. Both sides are pledging to work together – for now.

It’s still too early to say whether that could be checks cut to Mainers, similar to the $285 checks slated to be mailed to 500,000+ Mainers by month’s end, or income tax cuts, or something else.

Of course, Maine is in the grips of the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of new cases and hospitalizations. No one knows what the inevitable arrival of the omicron variant could mean for the state’s economy.

But the investment bank JP Morgan is predicting a pretty rosy 2022, at least economically.

"Our view is that 2022 will be the year of a full global recovery, an end of the pandemic, and a return to normal economic and market conditions we had prior to the COVID-19 outbreak," Marko Kolanovic, JP Morgan’s chief global markets strategist said according to a Reuters report.

If true, that could lead to an even stronger flow of state tax revenues than projected this month.

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