Coronavirus

Mills administration faces pushback from healthcare workers over new vaccine mandate

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On August 12, Gov. Janet Mills announced that all Maine healthcare workers will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 1. 

Mills made the announcement at a joint press conference with Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Nirav Shah.

The agency is using its rule-making authority to issue an emergency change to existing immunization requirements that exist for healthcare workers. Under existing rules, healthcare workers in the state are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, influenza, and hepatitis B. The COVID-19 vaccine will now be added to that list.

The rule applies to employees of designated healthcare facilities, including hospitals, nursing homes, home-health providers and psychiatric facilities. As part of the emergency rule, the requirement that healthcare workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine also applies to employees of emergency medical service (EMS) organizations and dental practices, as well as to independent contractors. Previous versions of the rule did not apply to EMS personnel or workers in dental offices. 

Maine statute grants exemption from immunization requirements only if an employee presents a statement from a licensed physician stating that immunization would be medically inadvisable. 

Under the CDC’s emergency rule, employees who cannot provide a record of immunization are to be excluded from their place of work for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.

In order to be considered fully vaccinated by the October 1 deadline, all employees must receive a final dose of the vaccine by September 17.

The emergency rule is possible because Maine DHHS declared a public health emergency on July 1, 2021, a day after the state of civil emergency first declared by Mills on March 15, 2020 expired. The declared emergency will remain in effect until it is terminated by the secretary of the federal DHHS. 

While Maine law allows the DHHS and the CDC to issue emergency rules during a declared public health emergency, they can only remain in effect for 90 days. After that period has expired, the agency must go through the normal rules-making process, which includes allowing a period of public comment before implementing new rules. The CDC has already announced its intention to do this and permanently require that healthcare workers receive COVID-19 vaccines.

At the August 12 press conference, Mills, Lambrew and Shah all emphasized the importance of vaccinations in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Health care workers perform a critical role in protecting the health of Maine people, and it is imperative that they take every precaution against this dangerous virus, especially given the threat of the highly transmissible Delta variant. With this requirement, we are protecting health care workers, their patients, including our most vulnerable, and our health care capacity,” Mills said.

Mills also cited figures from a mandated survey of healthcare workers conducted by DHHS that found 80.3 percent of staff at hospitals, 73 percent of staff at nursing facilities and 68.2 percent of staff at intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mills also stated that the vaccine mandate was supported by many of the state’s healthcare associations, including the Maine Hospital Association, Maine Medical Association, Maine Primary Care Association, and Maine Health Care Association. Mills also stated that Maine’s two largest healthcare providers, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, supported the policy.

Neither Mills’ office nor a spokesperson for Lambrew returned a request for comment about why a government mandate of the COVID-19 vaccine was necessary if private healthcare facilities were already in favor of requiring their staff to receive vaccines.

Mills’ announcement of the COVID-19 vaccine requirement was met with immediate public disapproval.

Hours after the announcement, the Senate Republicans issued a press release condemning the move.

“If the various members of Maine’s health care community believes 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,” they said in a statement. 

Senate Republicans also announced they are drafting an emergency piece of legislation that would reverse the mandate. According to a post on Facebook, more information about the legislation will be available this week.

Members of the public have also spoken out in opposition to the vaccine mandate. 

On August 14, Mainers for Freedom, a group of healthcare workers opposed to the mandate, held a protest in Portland that drew about 300 people. The group plans to hold another protest at the State House in Augusta on August 17. 

“We ask Gov. Mills and corporations throughout Maine to consider the many detrimental and irreversible consequences that will result from enforcing vaccine mandates. Given that our healthcare system is already understaffed and overworked, we implore these corporations and Governor Mills to strongly consider the ramifications of such mandates,” the group said on their website. 

Another protest against the vaccine mandate was held on August 15 in Bangor. The Stand up for Medical Freedom event drew several hundred people and was organized by Jackie Foraker and her mother Kim Files, both of whom are nurse practitioners.

They plan to join the protest in Augusta on August 17.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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