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Gov. Mills remains committed to vaccine mandate as Maine hospitals begin rationing services

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The Maine Legislature’s Republican leadership sent a letter to their Democratic counterparts on October 12 urging them to reconvene the legislature to address the Mills administration’s healthcare worker COVID-19 vaccine mandate that has led Central Maine Medical Center (CMMC) in Lewiston to suspend some admissions.

Days after CMMC revealed a contingency plan to lawmakers that would cut intensive care unit (ICU) beds by 50% and medical surgical beds by 40% in order to address workforce shortages, the hospital announced it is no longer accepting pediatric, heart attack, or trauma admissions.

The hospital said it will assess and stabilize patients, if necessary, but because of “unprecedented healthcare workforce shortages,” is no longer able to treat them.

CMMC had announced it would not be able to treat heart attack patients onsite but has since changed that policy and will continue to admit heart attack patients. Its neonatal ICU will close on October 25.

CMMC is calling on Gov. Janet Mills to alter her requirement that healthcare workers become fully immunized against COVID-19, which the state will begin enforcing on October 29, to allow for a testing alternative. 

The letter Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin) and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford) sent to Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) echoed the call to allow healthcare workers to opt out of the vaccine mandate by receiving regular testing for COVID-19. They urged their Democratic colleagues to convene the legislature in order to amend the governor’s mandate.

“Central Maine Healthcare is pleading for us to allow regular testing, whether it is weekly, twice a week so that they can continue to serve Mainers. This is the policy that was in place for the last year and worked without incident,” Republican leadership said in their letter.

Timberlake and Dillingham referred to CMMC’s suspension of patient services as “self-imposed rationing of care” and warned that the mandate is leading the state’s healthcare system “to a breaking point.”

Mills responded to Republicans’ call for a testing alternative to her administration’s mandate by accusing them of playing politics with public health. 

“Republicans should stop playing politics with a pandemic, and, instead, use their voice to strengthen, not weaken, public health measures,” Mills said in a statement. She called doing anything other than getting vaccinated an “absolute abdication of leadership.”

Mills also stated that regular testing is not as effective as getting vaccinated, and noted that, though CMMC and Central Maine Healthcare support a testing alternative to the vaccine mandate, other healthcare organizations in the state do not.

“Regular testing is not nearly as effective at protecting peoples’ health as vaccination, which is why it is not a part of our policy and it is not a part of the forthcoming Federal policy requiring all healthcare workers to be vaccinated. It is also not supported by the Maine Hospital Association, MaineHealth, Northern Light Health, and MaineGeneral Health. If Republicans don’t want to listen to me, then they should listen to them,” Mills said.

At an October 13 press conference held jointly by Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Nirav Shah and Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, Lambrew fielded multiple questions about the CMMC workforce shortage and the state’s vaccine mandate.

Lambrew stated her department is currently working with CMMC directly to figure out how the state can address the disruption in care and recently met with Central Maine Healthcare to discuss current issues facing the hospital system, which Lambrew characterized as not necessarily being caused by COVID-19 cases but by wear on the healthcare system from the pandemic, as well as issues that preceded the pandemic.

In the short-term, Lambrew says the state is “providing technical assistance on staff flexibility, resources of workers and trainees and other ways to provide access to services,” as well as financial support, including nearly $20 million in Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan to address both short- and long-term healthcare workforce recovery efforts. The state is also working with other hospitals in the region, including St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, which recently put out a statement assuring it is prepared to offer treatment to those who need it and cannot receive it at CMMC.

During the press conference, both Lambrew and Shah emphasized the importance of vaccination to relieve stress on the healthcare system. Lambrew quoted a senior clinician in Maine who said “it is the virus, not vaccination, that is causing stress at our hospitals and facilities.”

Lambrew also characterized the CDC rule requiring healthcare workers to be immunized against COVID-19 as “carefully considered and executed.” She welcomed a decision from a federal judge that came on October 13 and declined to issue an injunction against the October 29 date of enforcement of the vaccine mandate.

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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