In this Wednesday, May 27, 2020 file photo, Medical personnel adjust their personal protective equipment while working in the emergency department at NYC Health + Hospitals Metropolitan in New York. Credit: John Minchillo / AP

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Maine healthcare workers are fast approaching a hard deadline, where they must get vaccinated or face the prospect of losing their job.

For weeks, the political and healthcare leaders responsible for the vaccine mandate in Maine have been telling us that the impact of impending staff losses on Maine’s healthcare industry will be marginal. To hear them tell it, there will be some people “here or there” that choose to leave jobs in healthcare professions, but ultimately it will be a very small number. So small, that it won’t matter all that much.

Admittedly, by some metrics they are probably right. Late last week, Northern Light Health reported that 92.2 percent of its employees had been vaccinated. That is a tremendously high rate of vaccination, obviously.

But while it may not sound very large, that still leaves roughly 7.8 percent of employees that have not yet been vaccinated, and for healthcare systems big or small, the potential loss of that many workers has to have a devastating prospect.

Look what is happening in the state of New York, which also has a vaccine mandate for its healthcare system that went into effect on Monday. After the deadline passed, hundreds of unvaccinated healthcare workers were suspended, and soon may be losing their jobs.  

The numbers in New York look an awful lot like they do here in Maine. According to CNN, prior to the deadline “92 percent of hospital staff, 92 percent of nursing home staff and 89 percent of adult care facility staff had at least one vaccine dose.”

That means that as of today, the state is doing without 8 percent of its hospital and nursing home staff, and 11 percent of its adult care facility staff. That is a shocking and unconscionable loss of critical manpower at a time when it is needed the most.

In Maine and every other state nationwide, we are already experiencing major staff shortages. I recently went in for my annual physical, and my physician told me of how difficult it has been maintaining the practice through the pandemic. After many of the workers, particularly nurses, had been furloughed, a large number of them chose not to return, causing a major staff shortage.

That staff shortage was made all the worse by COVID-19 itself, of course. The virus continues to spread across the state, and there are sometimes breakthrough cases even among the vaccinated population. That means that healthcare professionals are often missing time at work, having to deal with an infection.

This twin problem of non-returning staff and rotating illness among those who remain has put a tremendous strain on the healthcare system at a time when it needs every single body it can possibly find. With the rise of cases due to the delta variant, Maine hospitals and healthcare facilities are stressed more than ever. Adding to that shortage through mandating vaccines, intentionally forcing out a significant number of workers who will simply refuse to comply only makes the situation worse.

I’ve been clear from the very beginning that I am no vaccine skeptic. I’ve used my column to repeatedly state my confidence in them. I believe in their safety. I believe in their efficacy. I got the shot the first moment I was able to, as did every member of my family. When the government approves the vaccines for children 5 to 11 years old, I will have my 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter in line on the first day.

Let me once again take this opportunity to ask you to get it, and reiterate how critical I think it is for us to come through this pandemic as a society.

With all of that said though, my belief in the vaccines safety, efficacy and importance to our wider society is very much separate from any belief as to the appropriateness of this kind of mandate.

Not only is it bad policy, given the havoc it may cause in the healthcare industry, but it is also a disturbing violation of some fundamental principles relating to human liberty that we all should share.

Should we be comfortable with the government mandating, through threat of force, that you inject a medicine into your body? Should you be willing to accept it just because you believe in the importance of the vaccine in question?

To me, no matter the social good that is intended from these strong-armed tactics, they represent shocking abridgements of liberty, and end up being counterproductive and ultimately harmful. If we want more people to be vaccinated, the right solution is not compulsion, it is time, patience and reason. If those things don’t prove effective, we have bigger problems in our society than any mandate can solve.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...