Maine’s requirement that healthcare workers at designated healthcare facilities be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 went into enforcement on October 29.
With no religious or philosophical exemptions available to healthcare workers opposed to the mandate, October 29 signaled the final day of work for many healthcare workers opposed to vaccination and not qualified for a medical exemption.
Public health officials in Gov. Janet Mills’ administration have not clarified the number of healthcare workers who are no longer in the workforce as a result of the vaccination requirement.
Maine CDC first began reporting the vaccination rates of health care workers at designated facilities on its online dashboard in May. From then through September, the most recent month for which data is available, the overall vaccination rate for healthcare workers at designated healthcare facilities has risen by approximately 9%.
However, over that period, there is a difference of 9,123 healthcare workers whose vaccination status is no longer being reported on the Maine CDC’s online dashboard. The overall number of workers whose vaccine status was being reported by the state has shrunk by 10% since July.
At a November 3 press conference jointly held by Department of Health and Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Nirav Shah, Lambrew stated she could not confirm whether the difference of 9,123 workers whose vaccination status is no longer being reported on represents workers no longer in the healthcare workforce.
“Their own workforce ebbs and flows all the time with changes in capacity,” Lambrew said.
Lambrew also discussed seasonal changes in demand for healthcare, which she stated always increase during the summer, as a potential explanation for the change.
In the past, Lambrew and other state officials and healthcare representatives have discussed burnout and quarantine following exposure to COVID-19 as contributing to a workforce shortage that existed before the pandemic.
Of the data reported in the Maine CDC’s dashboard, Lambrew said it’s intended to be a snapshot of worker vaccination rates in designated healthcare facilities and is “not intended to do anything else.”
She also said her agency expects to release data for October on healthcare worker vaccination rates next week, which will provide a “better snapshot.”
Lambrew further announced that her agency will be transitioning their reporting on healthcare worker vaccination rates from a survey and online dashboard “for information’s sake” to a “reporting tool that will cover all the designated healthcare facilities subject to the rule.” According to Lambrew, that tool is forthcoming.
The data Maine CDC and DHHS currently publish, however, is only for designated healthcare facilities covered by the mandate. The dashboard reports on five different types of facilities: hospitals, nursing homes, ambulatory surgical centers (ASC), and assisted housing providers, including intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ICF/IDD).
Not reported are vaccination rates for healthcare facilities that are not subject to the Maine CDC’s vaccination requirements, such as senior centers, assisted living facilities or adult day health centers that are not part of a multi-level facility.
Lambrew also could not provide any data on the vaccination rate at facilities that do not fall under the rule.
In-state medical facilities that are not covered by the rule are potentially a source of employment in the healthcare sector for workers who quit their jobs at designated healthcare facilities because of the vaccine requirement, as are travel jobs in other states that have not announced a vaccine requirement.
That includes Brad Gebhardt, a respiratory therapist at Central Maine Medical Center (CMMC) in Lewiston until the vaccine requirement went into effect, who is considering working for a travel company in a state that hasn’t implemented a vaccination requirement.
Gebhardt says he was one of seven full-time respiratory therapists in his unit at CMMC who left the hospital over the vaccine mandate. According to Gebhardt, those departures left seven full-time employees, some of whom are recent hires. Gebhardt, who worked at CMMC for a year, said more than half the staff has turned over.
For Gebhardt and Emily Nixon, a registered nurse with 13 years of experience who recently founded the Coalition for Healthcare Workers Against Medical Mandates, the decision not to become vaccinated was about opposition to mandates and questions about the vaccine’s efficacy.
Gebhardt also questioned whether the ability of vaccinated individuals to carry and transmit COVID-19 made it an effective form of protection for hospital workers.
“At this point the best they say is that [the vaccine] can prevent you from getting a worse case. And that’s essentially just protecting yourself. And that’s a choice I’d rather take. I’ve been working with these people since this whole thing started and I’ve managed not to get sick, so I must have done something right,” Gebhardt said.
Nixon’s reasoning for leaving her job rather than becoming vaccinated was similar.
“My God-given right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity will always outweigh another’s will being imposed against my own. No means no,” Nixon said.
Gebhardt said had the mandate included either a religious or philosophical exemption or a testing alternative, he would not have left his job.
“It’s unfortunate. I finally found a job I was good at and I loved doing. It’s two minutes down the road and the governor wants to put an end to that.”
Nixon said she would have considered remaining in her job if a philosophical exemption to the vaccine requirement had been offered, but she is opposed to a testing alternative, which she described as “discriminatory” against the unvaccinated.
“I strongly oppose a testing alternative that only targets the unvaccinated as the data clearly shows that both vaccinated and unvaccinated transmit the virus,” she said.
Nixon says she knows from experience that the number of healthcare workers who decided to leave their jobs because of the vaccine mandate is higher than the number currently being cited in the media.
She says 1,800 healthcare workers indicated to her coalition that they were willing to be fired over the vaccination mandate when they became members.
“Thousands of healthcare workers left their jobs in Maine as a direct result of this Mills administration mandate. I know because I run the coalition that supports them,” Nixon said.
Nixon’s most recent job was with MaineHealth Care at Home as a visiting nurse. Prior to that, she worked across the country as a travel nurse. During that time she worked at Eastern Maine Medical Center, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and Maine Medical Center.
Despite 18 years working in healthcare, Nixon says she has decided to leave the healthcare field.
“I am rather disappointed with our healthcare system. I entered the field because I wanted to help people and I stayed in it because I am an excellent nurse. With a broken heart, I have decided to leave the field altogether after witnessing how this pandemic has been handled,” Nixon said.
While Gebhardt hasn’t made any decisions about his future, he’s thinking about looking for a travel job in a state that currently doesn’t have a mandate.
But that may be complicated by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) recently released emergency temporary standard requiring companies that employ 100 or more people to vaccinate their employees against COVID-19. Any employees who are not vaccinated must wear a mask to work and produce a negative COVID-19 test at least once a week. Under the rule, which was announced on November 4, companies have 30 days following its publication to comply.
Though the rule, part of a set of vaccination requirements announced by President Joe Biden in September, has already been challenged by 11 states, it could complicate hiring practices for healthcare workers in the short-term.
When Mills announced the Maine COVID-19 vaccination requirement on August 12, she spoke in favor of universal vaccine requirements.
“Quite frankly, if everybody does this, and we’re requiring all licensees to do it, there won’t be many places to go. People will not be able to quit their job and go to another job as readily,” Mills said.
But for Gebhardt, a universal vaccine requirement means he’ll leave the healthcare workforce permanently.
“If I need to get a different profession, I will. I’m pretty against this thing,” he said. “I’ve done other work in the past. I can go back; that’s fine.”