AUGUSTA, Maine — Effects of Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccine mandate for health care workers trickled in as a key deadline hit on Friday, with hospitals reporting smaller staffing hits than those expected at nursing homes and providers serving people with intellectual disabilities.
Maine was set to begin enforcing the requirement at the close of business on Friday. It is one of the strongest mandates in the country with no testing alternative, although the Democratic governor pushed back the initial deadline by a month and said it would allow people who began their vaccination course by Friday to continue working while wearing protective gear.
The controversial mandate went into effect amid a massive national worker shortage that is slamming virtually all sectors. In Maine, none have been hit harder than health care, which has accounted for 12 percent of pandemic job losses here. That shortage has resulted in service reductions at hospitals and a handful of nursing home closures.
Providers were treating the mandate differently on Friday and there were incomplete figures across the sector on how many workers would be lost due to the mandate. The state’s two largest hospital networks, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, were not enforcing the new rule until Saturday, while Central Maine Healthcare was complying on Friday.
At Central Maine Healthcare, 156 of 3,000 employees — or roughly 5 percent — have left due to the mandate and another 33 will not work until they are fully vaccinated in early December, said spokesperson Jim Cyr. The system’s Lewiston hospital, Central Maine Medical Center, has been the Maine hospital most affected by shortages in recent months. It closed a neonatal intensive care unit earlier this month and suspended admissions in some areas of care.
Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health will lose 191 — or roughly 4 percent — of 4,000 employees, with 112 terminated by the system on Friday while the rest resigned. MaineHealth and Northern Light Health did not provide updated figures on Friday, but they have expected smaller relative effects on their workforces.
Bigger effects are expected in residential care. The Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said on Friday that members expect to lose between 5 percent and 10 percent of staff, while the group that represents providers serving Mainers with intellectual disabilities expects to lose 10 percent of workers on top of a 20 percent loss during the pandemic.
“Given Maine’s severe and persistent long term care staffing shortage, losing even one valuable team member is difficult,” Angela Westhoff, the nursing home association’s president, said in a statement.
There were some relative success stories: Bangor-based OHI, which supports hundreds of people with disabilities, said it was only parting with three of 265 employees due to the mandate while another 10 who have begun vaccination courses will return to work within two weeks.
But those are on top of 70 existing job vacancies at OHI and staff members intermittently out of work due to COVID-19 exposure or family or medical leave, said Melinda Ward, OHI’s assistant CEO. She said despite the hardship, only two clients have tested positive for the virus.
“That is a credit to our staff who have followed every new and changing [state or federal] rule we have had to implement over the past 18 months,” Ward said.
While the Maine Hospital Association and the nursing home group have been among the most influential backers of Mills’ mandate, the trouble at the Lewiston hospital prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the region and Republicans to call on Mills to enshrine a testing alternative for unvaccinated workers.
The governor has rebuffed them, arguing vaccinated workers will allow providers to have continuity of care and that a pending federal mandate likely will not include such an opt-out. Her mandate has also survived initial challenges in federal and state courts so far.
Vaccination rates rose sharply across the health care sector in September as the mandate was being implemented. By the time data was last reported to the state on Sept. 30, 91.6 percent of hospital workers and 85.8 percent of nursing home workers were fully vaccinated. Roughly 97 percent of paramedics were vaccinated as of earlier this month, but some rural services were expecting squeezes on capacity.