The association representing Maine hospitals is advocating for the state to mandate vaccinations for all health care employees in Maine once federal regulators grant the vaccines full approval.

“We would prefer if there is a mandate, that we want the mandate to cover all health care providers,” said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. “Job No. 1 for us, however we can get it done, is to get them vaccinated.”

Health care worker vaccination data published by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention last week shows wide variations in vaccination rates among the state’s hospitals and nursing homes.

Michaud said a blanket requirement would prevent unvaccinated health care workers who don’t want the shot from switching jobs to employers who do not mandate the vaccine. Such clusters of unvaccinated workers could lead to more outbreaks, Michaud said.

The vaccines currently in use – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – were approved in 2020 and early 2021 by the FDA under an emergency use authorization. Studies showed the vaccines worked – and have worked safely and effectively as they’ve been given to millions of people worldwide starting in December.

The full approval process takes longer, but the vaccines were given the green light by the FDA for emergency use because of the worldwide pandemic.

Pfizer and Moderna applied to the FDA for full approval in May and June, respectively, and full approval could occur as soon as this fall. Johnson & Johnson has not yet requested final approval from the FDA for its one-shot vaccine.

Michaud said once the FDA gives full approval to the vaccines, they should be mandated for health care staff, just as the flu shot is mandated for all health workers in Maine. The flu shot requirement was previously left up to health care providers, but in April the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the seasonal flu shot a mandate for health employees.

Michaud said the MHA is in “early conversations” with the Maine CDC to lay the groundwork for a vaccine requirement for health care workers once the vaccines clear the final regulatory hurdles.

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long says it’s premature to discuss possible future rules.

“Maine CDC cannot speculate on future rulemaking as it relates to COVID-19 vaccination, for which all three authorized vaccines remain in emergency authorization status,” Long said in an email to the Press Herald.

The Maine CDC released COVID-19 vaccination statistics last week for health care providers, and there was a wide variation in immunization depending on the workplace. For instance, 81 percent of Maine Medical Center employees were vaccinated for COVID-19, one of the highest percentages in the state, compared to 58 percent at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. More than 65 percent of eligible Mainers are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Millinocket Regional Hospital topped the state with a 92.3 percent vaccination rate, while St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston had the worst vaccination rate at 52.1 percent.

Nursing homes had a similarly wide range of vaccination rates, as low as 25 percent and as high has 91 percent among the roughly 95 homes on the state list.

John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care network, including Maine Med, said the network doesn’t have a position on whether there should be a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but a future requirement for MaineHealth workers is “under discussion.”

Andrew Soucier, spokesman for Northern Light Health, which operates Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and other hospitals in Maine, including Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland, said staff vaccination strategy is being discussed.

“We are aware of the changes at other organizations across the nation, and we are consulting with clinical experts at the state on the best approach,” Soucier said in a statement.

National Nurses United, the union that represents nurses at two of the state’s major hospitals, Maine Medical Center and Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, did not respond to a reporter’s message Monday.

In Massachusetts, some hospital systems are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for their workers now, even before the FDA grants full approval, including Mass General Brigham, Beth Israel Lahey Health and Wellforce.

COVID-19 case counts remain low in Maine, with 13 new cases reported Monday. There were no additional deaths.

The seven-day average of daily new cases is 23, compared to 36.3 a week ago and 127 a month ago. At the pandemic’s peak in mid-January, Maine was often topping 600 new cases per day.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 68,989 cases of COVID-19, and 858 deaths. On the vaccination front, 774,632 people in Maine have received their final dose of COVID-19 vaccines, representing 57.6 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population. Maine is currently the third-ranked state in the country for the percentage of its population that is fully vaccinated, trailing only Vermont and Massachusetts.

To try to boost vaccination rates, Maine has launched a sweepstakes called “Don’t Miss Your Shot: Vaccinationland Sweepstakes” where the winner, to be announced on July 4, will receive $1 for every person in Maine with at least one shot. Through Monday, 285,452 people had signed up for the sweepstakes. Only those who have received at least one dose are eligible for the sweepstakes.

However, immunizations in Maine have slowed to a crawl, with 8,816 doses given in the most recent week, through Monday, compared to 19,699 the previous week. In late April, when Mainers were clamoring for shots, the state was giving about 85,000 to 90,000 weekly.

With the pace of vaccinations slowing in Maine and nationally as demand has cratered, public health officials are now targeting the “movable middle” about 55 million unvaccinated adults seen as persuadable, The Associated Press reported.

Xavier Becerra, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, told the AP that vaccination strategy has shifted from mass vaccine clinics to a more personal approach.

“It’s door to door. It’s mobile clinics. We’re doing vaccinations at church, the PTA meeting, the barber shop, the grocery store,” Becerra said.

Maine has adopted a similar strategy, going to places where younger adults are more likely to congregate, such as concerts and breweries.

Currently, there are 27 people in Maine hospitals with COVID-19, including 16 in critical care.

 

 


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