Maine public health officials said Tuesday that they will take vaccine away from hospitals that violate state and federal guidelines in the wake of controversy over providers that vaccinated non-patient-facing staff members or donors while so many Mainers wait anxiously to be inoculated against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in dueling news releases, Gov. Janet Mills criticized MaineHealth for ignoring state guidelines and vaccinating out-of-state contractors ahead of more vulnerable older Mainers, and MaineHealth continued to deny it violated any guidelines when vaccinating its staff members.

State health officials conceded during a media briefing Tuesday that their guidelines have changed in response to rapidly shifting conditions, including lack of vaccine and pressure from other groups that are eager to be vaccinated, such as health care providers outside hospital networks.

However, they defended the state’s oversight of hospitals, which have assumed a major role in a vaccine rollout that began nearly two months ago and will likely continue to be a “bumpy road,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, it came to light that Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health offered vaccine to donors when piloting the network’s inoculation effort, something that administrators there said was unintended. And this week MaineHealth, which includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, came under fire after a column in the Maine Sunday Telegram reported that it vaccinated staff and contractors who have no contact with patients. Current state and federal guidelines prohibit that practice, but it previously was allowed and was carried out by other health care networks as well.

Jeanne Lambrew, head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the vast majority of COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered according to state and federal guidelines, but it will respond and reallocate vaccine when the guidelines are ignored.


“The state of Maine has made it clear that if you are getting vaccines directed from the state of Maine, you must follow those rules,” Lambrew said. “And those rules include following the guidance that we have. So we do ultimately have the ability to redirect and move vaccine when it’s not being used quick enough or not being used consistent with those guidelines.”

Lambrew did not say whether the state has taken such action or explain how the state might reallocate vaccines.

Mills issued her statement Tuesday evening, criticizing MaineHealth for vaccinating beyond the state’s priority groups of front-line health care workers and Mainers age 70 and older, including residents of nursing home and assisted-living facilities.

“MaineHealth’s decision to vaccinate outside of this strategy undermines the public’s confidence in our efforts,” Mills said. “Simply put, it was not the appropriate way to give away our precious vaccine.”

Mills said further, “We are in the midst of the largest, most difficult vaccination effort of our time and our health care providers have been important partners in this effort. But we have a limited supply of the vaccine, and we have had to prioritize who can be vaccinated.”

Moreover, Mills said, “vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union-organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn: the 80-year-old grandmother who hasn’t seen her family in months; the man being treated for cancer; the teacher wanting to return to the classroom; the grocery clerks and delivery drivers who are exposed to the public and working to put food on the table.”


Mills called it an “inexcusable act” and said she was glad MaineHealth “recognized their error and have committed to following our strategy, as is required of all vaccine providers in Maine.”

Maine Senate Democrats piled on the criticism of MaineHealth, issuing their own statement Tuesday.

“Every out-of-state consultant and lawyer that MaineHealth flew in as part of their intimidation campaign got the vaccine instead of someone’s grandparent or loved one,” said Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash. “It’s concerning that MaineHealth would put their own anti-union agenda, and their own bottom line, ahead of the health and well-being of Maine people. At a time when Maine has only a limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccine and is still grappling with a public health crisis, this seems particularly cruel.”

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care organization, has acknowledged that Maine Medical Center made a mistake when it vaccinated about 10 out-of-state consultants hired to help fight an effort to unionize nurses there, which violated a state guideline issued mid-January that required vaccine be given to Mainers because the state’s allocation is based on population.

However, in its news release Tuesday, MaineHealth said it has “at all times … and continues to vaccinate its care team members in accordance with U.S. CDC and Maine CDC guidelines, and news reports to the contrary are false.”

The Maine CDC officially excluded non-patient-facing health care workers, such as administrative staff and employees working remotely, from its Phase 1A priority group on Jan. 13. State health officials first discussed the issue with hospital administrators in late December.


“MaineHealth stands by its decision in December to offer vaccination against COVID-19 to its full care team as being in the best interests of its patients, care team members and the communities it serves,” the network’s statement said. “This action secured the ability of the state’s largest health care system to provide care and to support community vaccinations at a critical time during the pandemic.”

If MaineHealth had not moved to offer vaccinations to all of its 22,500 care team members, the statement said, it would not now be able to staff the vaccination clinics across its service area, including one established last week at Scarborough Downs that will be able to inoculate up to 2,000 people daily if the vaccine supply increases to allow it. People staffing the clinics include care team members who were previously working from home, “the majority of whom are now being redeployed for at least a part of their weekly shifts to staff vaccination clinics.”

MaineHealth concluded that it “appreciates the state’s stated focus on ensuring that its guidance and communications with respect to vaccines will be clear going forward.”

Central Maine Healthcare, Northern Light Health and MaineGeneral Health each acknowledged vaccinating administrative and other non-clinical staff after first offering vaccine to all employees who work directly with patients.

“We pivoted on Jan. 13 after the Maine CDC announced its changes to vaccine administration and have been following the updated guidelines since then,” said Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer at Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston.

Northern Light Health did start to vaccinate non-patient-facing staff who were working on site at least part of the week, spokeswoman Suzanne Spruce said.


“We discontinued that practice when the Maine CDC guidelines were refined to prioritizing vaccine for health care workers not employed by Northern Light Health and those who are age 70 and above,” Spruce said. “What we did not do is begin vaccinating staff who are working remotely. That was a decision we made as a system.

MaineGeneral has vaccinated 3,049 of its 4,600 employees, giving at least first doses to all who wanted to be inoculated, including the final tier of workers “who don’t traditionally have a lot of patient interaction day-to-day but could be redeployed on a moment’s notice,” spokeswoman Joy McKenna said.

Lambrew acknowledged that the Maine CDC changed its guidelines when state health officials learned that patient-facing health care providers outside hospital systems were in desperate need of the state’s limited vaccine supply.

“We take seriously that many people who are eligible for vaccine are not yet getting it,” Lambrew said. “It’s our job to do our best to move vaccines to places that will vaccinate those people who are eligible.”

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