AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills may issue a vaccine mandate for Maine health care workers within days after rising COVID-19 cases and back-to-back outbreaks at two MaineHealth hospitals raised new concerns about vaccinations there.
It is unclear how many of the affected health care workers were vaccinated at Maine Medical Center, where 10 cases among emergency department workers and four unrelated cases on another floor were reported as of Tuesday, and Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, where five were reported. Some vaccinated workers tested positive at the Portland hospitals, while a Belfast hospital spokesperson declined to comment on vaccination status.
The two outbreaks come as Maine continues to see milestones in vaccinations, with 80 percent of adults having gotten at least one shot. But the more transmissible delta variant is leading to sharp rises in cases in Maine and nationwide. Despite the state’s high vaccination rate, about 21 percent of hospital workers here are unvaccinated, according to state data.
Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor is “seriously considering” a mandate under existing state rules governing vaccinations, something supported by the Maine Hospital Association and another industry group for nursing homes. The Democratic governor’s decision could come within days, which was first reported by the Portland Press Herald.
Both outbreaks should spur the state or providers to speed up mandates for getting workers vaccinated since outbreaks at this point could diminish confidence in the system and put patients at risk, said Dr. Peter Millard, a Waldo County physician and former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist.
“It looks bad either way, regardless of how those cases happened,” Millard said.
Waldo County General Hospital spokesperson Jenifer Harris said the outbreak there is a result of community transmission of the virus. The coastal county is currently seeing the highest rate in the state. Employees who tested positive are currently isolated at home.
The two hospitals have seen varied vaccination rates: Maine Medical Center reported 87 percent of employees were fully vaccinated as of June and Waldo County General Hospital reported 78 percent.
COVID-19 vaccines are still overwhelmingly effective against the delta variant, though it is more contagious than other strains. Maine has reported 712 so-called breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, which would equal just 0.085 percent of fully vaccinated people here.
Maine State Nurses Association spokesperson Todd Ricker said his union, which represents Maine Medical Center nurses, is assessing how that outbreak occurred. He called on the hospital to ensure all frontline health care workers have access to protective gear and that it is following recently-released guidelines from the U.S. Department of Labor meant to protect workers who are at high risk of getting sick.
Those standards include requiring facilities to have a plan to mitigate virus spread, provide six feet of distance between workers or create barriers if space is an issue and to provide paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects. Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said initial investigations show neither hospital had issues with protective gear supply.
BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.