Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters in the Maine State House, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Augusta. Credit: David Sharp / AP

Gov. Janet Mills announced on Thursday that health care workers will have another month to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The change is likely aimed at aiding employers uncertain about the requirement’s effect on their staff. While workers are still required to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, the state will not begin enforcing the rule until Oct. 29, allowing employers to keep unvaccinated workers on the job and delaying state enforcement actions that could affect facilities’ licensing.

The Democratic governor, who announced the mandate last month, originally planned to require health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. Maine is one of 10 states that have mandated health care workers be vaccinated to some degree, but almost all of the other states allow a testing alternative for unvaccinated workers. Only doctors can exempt workers here.

The Mills administration is not signaling more changes. Maine believes the immunization requirement is a “more effective approach” compared with allowing testing, said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

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“We are just trying to cut a little slack for people who may be a little late or for organizations that might need that extra time to come into compliance,” Lambrew said.

The additional time will give employers more space to use a total of $146 million in funding authorized earlier this year to nursing homes and other providers meant to support recruitment and retention efforts. The state has also gotten 10,000 more doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be used specifically for health care workers.

The change will help with some logistical challenges of getting workers vaccinated, said Steven Michaud, the president of the Maine Hospital Association. Mills’ move was welcomed by Michaud’s group and the Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes. Both initially lobbied for the mandate.

Since it was implemented, it has become a top political issue in Maine, leading to protests including one as Mills led the state’s bicentennial parade in Lewiston and Auburn last month. The timing also proved challenging, since it came as staffing shortages, rising cases and long-standing workforce issues slammed the state’s health care system in the past week.

Three nursing homes have announced closures this week and the change is not expected to reverse those. One of them, the Country Manor Nursing Home in Coopers Mills, placed years of declining occupancy, a rural setting and staffing shortage as the root causes. But six direct care and nursing staff were also refusing to be vaccinated, something that contributed to the move.

“It gives folks who are on the fence and want to get vaccinated the time to do so,” Doug Gardner, the vice president of operations at North County Associates, which owns several Maine and consults for the owner of the Coopers Mills home, said of the governor’s move.

But it did not assuage legislative Republicans, who are drafting legislation aimed at overturning the mandate. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said the extra time amounted to Mills “playing chicken” with people who do not want to get vaccinated. He said he has been pressing the administration to consider a testing exemption.

“Health care workers know what they’re up against after the last 18 months, and they’ve decided [the vaccine] isn’t for them,” he said. “It’s not about the money for these people.”