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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 for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.
In Maine today, you are not allowed to work at a health care facility if you are unvaccinated and perfectly healthy. However you are now allowed to work at a health care facility if you are vaccinated and sick with COVID-19.
While it may seem absurd, that is the reality we live in today. This week, St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston announced that it will be allowing some workers who have tested positive for COVID to return to work within strict parameters, in response to dramatic worker shortages and record hospitalizations that have hit the industry in recent weeks, largely due to the rise of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Allowing unvaccinated workers to return would not solve St. Mary’s problem, of course. Chief Medical Officer Doug Smith has claimed that the hospital lost eight nurses due to the institution of the vaccine mandate, but last week roughly 70 employees have been out with COVID on average each day. Still, there is no doubt that at least some of the pressure on the hospitals would be alleviated if those people dismissed from their jobs and healthy were allowed to work.
There is even less doubt as to the absurd logic of shutting healthy nurses out, while letting sick nurses work.
Smith made clear that they don’t have any choice at this point, and he is probably right. According to him, allowing these sick employees back on the job is likely the only way that the hospital can ensure that patients are getting the care that they need.
“I feel as if people are doing the proper use of personal protective equipment, it’s safe both for themselves and others,” Smith said.
But with due respect to that logic, one has to wonder if it makes much sense. With the institution of the vaccine mandate in health care settings, the workers who now remain are entirely vaccinated and have also been wearing medical-grade personal protective equipment — the higher quality masks that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now considering recommending to all of us — the entire time they have been working. And yet they still continue to get sick, so much so that 70 are out of work at any given time.
If, as Smith said, their vaccination status and use of personal protection equipment is sufficient for the safety of themselves and others, how then are these infections occurring? Hospital settings, after all, are essentially the gold standard for the implementation of advice we’ve been getting from public health experts for the past two years. Regardless of where the infections are occurring, at work or in the community, they’ve been doing all the things we need to do to slow down the pandemic. So why is it ravaging them now?
The answer seems to be fairly simple: Because omicron is that much more transmissible than prior versions of COVID, the vaccine’s efficacy at stopping the spread of omicron is questionable at best, and breakthrough cases were always going to happen and are now getting much more prevalent as the virus shifts.
None of which is to say that any of the public health experts are wrong to recommend the vaccine. I was an early advocate of it, and remain so. I have received not only my first two shots of the Moderna vaccine, but also a third dose (of Pfizer) as well. My wife is fully vaccinated and boosted, and three of my four children are fully vaccinated, with the lone holdout simply being too young.
The vaccines remain an important weapon in the fight against COVID, because, despite their increasingly apparent uselessness at stopping the spread of the virus, they maintain significant protection against the most severe courses of the illness, even with the new variants. Put simply, get them and you are going to be in a better situation, if exposed to COVID, than you would have otherwise been in.
Despite my opposition, I don’t doubt Gov. Janet Mills had good intentions in crafting the mandate. But the notion — then, as now — that we should do anything to dismiss any health care workers from their job at a time of great crisis was always highly suspect, and now clearly seems to have been a mistake.
Vaccines may have been able to marginally slow the spread of COVID in an age of delta, but in the era of omicron, they are not. And even if they were, the question still needs to be asked: Is that marginal benefit, if it even exists, worth the damage caused to the system by the loss of roughly 800 health care workers, at a time of desperate need? So desperate that we now have COVID-positive workers returning to work?
I leave the answer to you.