Opposition to the state’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers has bubbled over this week, with many affected groups and individuals expressing concerns over the impact, especially on Maine’s already struggling workforce.
It’s still too early to tell whether a significant number of critics of the mandate will follow through on threats to leave their profession on or before the Oct. 1 deadline, but the fear is real.
Ellis Baum already has had one employee tell him they are planning to quit over the mandate. He hopes the list doesn’t grow. As regional director for Residential Resources, an agency that manages group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities, Baum has been dealing with a workforce crisis that predates the pandemic.
“I have 700 open hours each week that I have to fill. If I were to lose any staff over this situation, it would be devastating,” he said.
Since Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement last week, there have been well-attended public protests in Portland, Augusta and Bangor over the weekend and into this week, as well as formal letters of opposition from affected groups, including the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, which opposes the mandate that applies to emergency medical personnel.
Gorham Fire Chief Ken Fickett expects his small fire department to see staffing challenges due to the mandate. Of his 10 full-time staff who are cross-trained in emergency medical services, Fickett said four have chosen to not get vaccinated.
“I’m trying (to convince them), but it’s their choice and the choice will be at this point if they choose not to get it, they will not be working because that’s what the rule says,” said Fickett, who is vaccinated.
Republicans in the Maine Legislature also have sent letters to Mills asking her to reconsider. They are pledging to introduce legislation that would overturn the mandate, which was added to existing vaccine requirements for health care workers for infectious diseases like measles, chicken pox and hepatitis B.
Mills has not backed off her decision. In a statement from her office this week, the governor pointed out that health care workers have long been required to receive various inoculations as a condition of employment.
The mandate had the support of nearly every major organization that represents health care, including the Maine Hospital Association, Maine Medical Association, Maine Primary Care Association, Maine Health Care Association, Maine Emergency Medical Services and Maine Dental Association, along with the state’s two largest health systems, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health.
SOME RELENT, OTHERS RESIGN
But even with that support, the threat of employees leaving is a concern.
Paul Bolin, chief human resources officer for Northern Light Health, said this week that some employees have resigned over the mandate, but he didn’t provide a number. Northern Light has 12,000 employees statewide.
Bolin said many employees who had threatened to leave over the mandate have since relented and gotten their shot. He acknowledged that some workers might feel strongly about not wanting to be forced to get the vaccine, but said, as a health care organization, they have to protect patients first.
John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, said that as of Thursday, no employee had left because of the mandate.
“We have seen what people have said, that they don’t want to get the shot and are thinking about leaving,” he said. “But we’re optimistic that turnover will not be affected in a major way by this.”
Roughly 85 percent of MaineHealth employees are currently fully vaccinated.
Porter said employees already are required to get other shots, including flu shots as of last year. He said that requirement didn’t lead to any mass exodus of workers. He did say that if a worker is not fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, they will be terminated.
Joseph Seigars, 38, is a radiological technologist who works for multiple hospitals in the Northern Light Health network. He suffered a stroke that put him out of work and on disability in 2011 before he went back to school to get his healthcare degree a few years ago. His medical history, in combination with the fact he and his family had COVID this past spring, have played into his decision not to get the vaccine.
Seigars, who lives in Palermo, said he didn’t think he would be able to get a medical exemption – his physician’s office said they couldn’t make exceptions except for people with allergies – and worries about the vaccines being associated with a risk of stroke.
IN A TOUGH SPOT
For now, Seigars is planning to continue at his job in hopes something may change with the mandate before Oct. 1, the date the state has set for when all healthcare workers must be fully vaccinated.
“Yes, I can go work at a fast-food place and make half of what I make but that’s not going to support my family,” he said. “This mandate put people like me in a really tough spot.”
Heather Klajbor, a certified nursing assistant at MaineGeneral in Augusta, said she is refusing the vaccine because she “believes in personal autonomy and bodily integrity.”
“I just believe in personal choice,” said Klajbor, 29. “We should have the right to choose what we do put in our bodies. I’m not someone who is anti-vaccination, I just believe we should be able to choose what we put in our bodies just as we give our patients that right every single day.”
Klajbor said she does not want to quit her job and she is not sure what she will do when Oct. 1 arrives. “I know I’m not going to quit my job,” she said. “I will see what (MaineGeneral) will do.”
Despite the protests and concerns, there has been overwhelming support for vaccines among health care workers in Maine.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking vaccination rates among health care workers for several months. According to the most recent data available, 80 percent of hospital staff in Maine are fully vaccinated and 86 percent of ambulatory surgical center staff have gotten both doses.
The rate drops to 75 percent for assisted living centers, 73 percent for nursing homes and 68 percent for staff at intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
VACCINATION RATES VARY
At specific employers, though, the rates can be significantly higher or lower.
For instance, at Dirigo Pines, an assisted living community in Orono, 71 of 87 employees (82 percent) are vaccinated. At Colonial Nursing Home in Lincoln, fewer than half (42 of 87) have gotten their vaccines.
Angela Westhoff, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said her organization supports requiring vaccines for workers but has concerns about the fallout.
“There are real workforce challenges, and shortages that existed pre-COVID,” she said. “I’m not sure what the mandate will lead to, but we certainly hope it’s not a significant number of people who will refuse and leave.”
Laura Cordes, executive director for the Maine Association of Community Service Providers, said her organization and members support vaccines but not the mandate.
She said the state has lost roughly 30 percent of its direct support staff since the pandemic started, or more than 2,000 workers. Many, she said, have left for higher-paying jobs.
“There is a collective fear from providers that any further loss of staff could mean further loss of services, lower quality of care, or even displacement of some of Maine’s most vulnerable residents,” Cordes said.
EMS A PARTICULAR CONCERN
The Maine Association of Fire Chiefs echoed concerns about employees leaving the workforce.
“Enforcement of a COVID-19 vaccination mandate on Maine’s EMS agencies, both private and fire based, will have far reaching and long-lasting effects on the ability of EMS agencies to provide critical public safety services to the citizens of our communities,” said association president Darrell White, the fire chief in Presque Isle.
He also referenced concerns from staff “who have deep-rooted religious or philosophical objections to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.” He also pointed out that the vaccines have not received full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, echoing concerns raised by others.
Some of the criticism of Mills’ order has been that employers should be able to make their own decisions.
“If the various members of Maine’s health care community believe that vaccinations are essential, they have every right to mandate them for their own employees without government becoming involved in the decisions of private organizations,” the Maine Senate Republicans said in a statement.
However, Mills has said it’s important to keep requirements the same at all providers across the state. That will help with any workforce challenges, too. An employee at one health care provider can’t move to another if they don’t like the mandate.
Although Maine is among the first states to mandate vaccines for all health-care workers, a growing number of states and municipalities are starting to implement mandates for public-facing employees.
MANDATES TAKING HOLD
Both New York and California have issued orders requiring health care workers to vaccinated. Pennsylvania similarly announced last week that its 25,000 employees who work in state-run health facilities must be vaccinated.
Hundreds more major health care providers across the country also have instituted vaccine mandates, including in states where governors – Republicans, exclusively – have threatened to cut off funding to places that require vaccines.
In some instances, medical or religious exemptions are allowed, although exempt workers may be subjected to testing and other safety requirements.
Maine’s mandate does not have a religious exemption but allows medical exemptions for people whose physicians deem immunization “medically inadvisable.”
Some of those who have spoken out in protest have said people should have the right to medical freedom. Even some who said they were vaccinated didn’t support a mandate.
But the freedom to choose still exists under the new mandate. It just means people might need to find new employment.
Many vaccine critics made similar arguments after Maine passed a law that required public school children to be vaccinated. The choice for some of those parents was to home school.
James Elliott, a registered nurse in the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, said he is committed to his decision not to get the vaccine.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I have made a personal decision not to get the vaccine,” said Elliott, 35. “If that means I’m terminated I suppose I’ll accept that fate. It will be a real shame. I’ve worked really hard to become a nurse and I’ve been doing it for years and years.
“I love my job and love taking care of people, but I think it’s important for us as nurses … to be an example for people so they understand you do have bodily autonomy and what you put into your body should be your choice.”