Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew speaks at the opening of a makeshift COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic at a former horse racing track in Scarborough on Wednesday Feb. 3, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — State officials expressed “strong concern” as hospitals said early in Maine’s COVID-19 vaccination process that they may offer vaccines to non-patient facing workers, but Maine’s largest hospital system did so before the state revised guidelines in mid-January.

MaineHealth, the Portland-based hospital system that runs Maine Medical Center, came under fire after the Portland Press Herald reported over the weekend that it offered vaccines to employees who do not work directly with patients, including consultants brought in to address hospital nurses who were considering forming a union.

At least one other hospital system, Central Maine Healthcare, has also offered vaccinations to some administrative and nonclinical workers. But MaineHealth went much further than others. It gave the vaccine to workers brought in from out of state to answer nurses’ questions about joining a union.

Those vaccinations occurred after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said only patient-facing employees should receive the vaccine. The hospital system admitted it “erred” in that decision, but complied with all state and federal rules. Maine clarified a day later that people from outside the state should not be vaccinated here.

MaineHealth’s acknowledgment that it gave vaccines to employees who do not work with patients comes as demand for vaccines outpaces supply in Maine, leaving many older Mainers waiting for appointments. Maine extended vaccine eligibility to residents aged 70 and up in mid-January after initially reserving vaccines for health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, first responders and certain workers considered essential to the state’s virus response.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday the agency indicated “strong concern” in late December when it learned that hospitals were planning to administer vaccines to non-patient facing employees. She said the department worked with hospitals including MaineHealth to help vaccinate independent providers instead.

The department clarified to hospitals in December that patient-facing health care workers should get the vaccine before other hospital employees, Lambrew said. The state formally updated its guidance in mid-January to exclude staff who do not interact with patients from the initial phase.

“If you are getting vaccines directed from the state of Maine, you must follow those rules,” Lambrew said.

Lambrew noted the department had the ability to redirect vaccines if it believed they were not being administered in accordance with state guidelines. But she said the health care community had largely shared the state’s goal of trying to distribute vaccines quickly and equitably.

MaineHealth defended its decision to vaccinate administrative staff in a statement issued late Monday, saying vaccines were offered to “secure the health care system’s infrastructure” and that vaccinated staff members had been “redeployed” to help set up mass vaccination clinics.

“MaineHealth stands by its decision to secure its full health care system by vaccinating its full care team. We believe that it is the best approach for patients, care team members and the communities we serve,” the hospital system said.

Other Maine hospitals took varied approaches. Central Maine Healthcare, which operates a hospital in Lewiston as well as two smaller hospitals in western Maine, prioritized employees who worked directly with coronavirus patients before proceeding to other workers and pivoted after the Maine CDC updated its guidance, according to John Alexander, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

The hospital system has administered the vaccine to 236 administrative and nonclinical staff members according to its most recent data. All recipients were eligible under state guidelines at the time they received the vaccination, Alexander said.

Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for Northern Light Health, said the hospital system offered vaccines to traveling nurses, security guards and other contractors working on-site, but had not offered appointments to about 1,400 employees who are working remotely.

Joy McKenna, a spokesperson for the Augusta-based MaineGeneral, which faced pushback in recent weeks for offering early vaccinations to donors age 70 and over, said the hospital had offered all employees vaccinations, but that no employees were fully working remotely and all could be “redeployed” at any time to help with patient-facing tasks, including assisting with vaccine clinics. She said the system had not offered vaccines to contractors.

Democratic lawmakers including Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, were critical of MaineHealth on Tuesday, with Gov. Janet Mills calling it an “inexcusable act.”

“Right now, we are focused on protecting those who are providing direct care — frontline health care workers — and those who are 70 or older because their lives are most at risk,” said Mills, whose sister, Dr. Dora Mills, ‎is the provider’s chief health improvement officer. “MaineHealth’s decision to vaccinate outside of this strategy undermines the public’s confidence in our efforts.”

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Tuesday that he understood the frustration of older Mainers who were frustrated to read about vaccines going to hospital employees while they remained unable to set up an appointment.

“We are keeping an eagle eye on the situation as best we can,” he said.