In this March 13, 2020, file photo, a sign points the way to the emergency department at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health provider, said it did not violate state guidelines when it administered COVID-19 vaccines to all employees — even those who work from home.

The health care system responded Monday to an opinion piece in the Maine Sunday Telegram that criticized MaineHealth’s actions while older Mainers struggle to get appointments for the vaccine.

When the COVID-19 vaccine became available in mid-December, frontline health care workers were given top priority. By the end of the month, MaineHealth began to offer vaccinations to all of its staff — even those without direct patient contact, according to the health care system. At the time, MaineHealth said, this was allowed under U.S. and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage from Dec. 28 gives examples of eligible health care personnel, including clerical, administrative and billing staff.

When Maine updated its guidelines in mid-January to specify that only employees with direct patient contact should be vaccinated, MaineHealth said it had already provided first doses to all employees who wanted the vaccine. The health system said its decision to vaccinate all employees has proven critical as it sets up mass vaccination sites, and that a majority of employees who have been working from home are now being redeployed to staff vaccine clinics.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Jackie Farwell, said that the state has updated its guidelines to more clearly define which health care personnel are eligible. Currently, the website specifies that it must be staff who come face to face with patients, and does not include staff who only provide telehealth or administrative, IT or billing services and who are not patient facing. But on Jan. 9, the same webpage did not include that information.

Other health systems said they vaccinated non-patient-facing staff until Maine’s guidelines were updated.

“There have been a few people in that grouping, but as of right now, we’re following the state guidelines that describe those individuals who have direct or indirect exposure to infectious materials,” said John Alexander, chief medical officer of Central Maine Health Care.

At Northern Light Health, spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said the system previously administered doses to non-patient-facing staff who worked on site at least part of the week. That practice was discontinued, Spruce said, after the Maine CDC prioritized people 70 and older. But she said Northern Light Health has not vaccinated employees who work remotely.

While MaineHealth said it did not violate guidelines when it vaccinated all of its employees, it acknowledged it had erred when it administered doses to a small number of out-of-state contractors in mid-January. The individuals were brought in to Maine Medical Center as the hospital faces an effort by nurses to unionize. The Mills administration requires that those who get the vaccine are Mainers, because doses are allocated to states based on population.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.