Maine is giving health care workers nearly an extra month to get vaccinated against COVID-19, extending the deadline even as the state continues to see a surge in new cases that rivals the pandemic’s midwinter peak.

The state will begin enforcing its vaccine mandate on Oct. 29 rather than Oct. 1 to give health care workers more time to become fully vaccinated and to give health care organizations time to use $146 million in forthcoming funds to address workforce needs, Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday. The deadline for workers to get immunized is still Oct. 1, but state enforcement of a health care facility’s state license won’t begin until Oct. 29.

“My goal is that every healthcare worker in Maine is vaccinated,” Mills said in a statement. “Anyone who is placed in the care of a health care worker has the right to expect – as do their families – that they will receive high-quality, safe care from fully vaccinated staff.

“Allowing this additional time and providing $146 million in funding to recruit and retain vaccinated workers will help protect the lives of medical staff and patients, protect our health care capacity and reduce the spread of the virus,” Mills said.

The change to the vaccination requirement comes as the more contagious delta variant drives up infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths in the state, continuing the surge that began in early July. State health officials reported 624 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the highest daily total since Jan. 22, and three more deaths.

Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, led an effort last week seeking more time for health care workers to get vaccinated to try to deal with a potential workforce shortage. Several service providers representing nursing homes, mental health and substance use services, home health care workers and others, asked Mills for a 45-day delay in a letter Aug. 26.

Shaughnessy said Thursday that the social service agencies are in a “precarious” position and are losing workers to places like Starbucks and Walmart. Three nursing homes recently announced they were closing because of staffing issues.

“Providers are going to lose potentially 15 to 25 percent of their staff who will outright refuse the vaccine,” Shaughnessy said. “The extra month is definitely going to be helpful getting them through. We need time to try to find other people.”

Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said in a media briefing that giving more time to employers should help alleviate the workforce issues.

“We are trying to cut a little slack, give organizations more time to come into compliance,” Lambrew said. She said patients have a right to be cared for by employees who are fully vaccinated.

The Maine Board of Emergency Medical Services, which oversees EMS workers, voted on Aug. 23 to give its workers an additional month to get vaccinated.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that as the delta variant surge continues, health care employers are experiencing worker shortages from people being infected with COVID-19, and getting everyone their shots will reduce worker shortfalls caused by the virus.

“The rule is working, and staff are increasingly getting vaccinated,” Shah said. Depending on the type of health care sector – for instance whether it’s  a hospital, nursing home or surgery center – vaccination rates ranged from 68 percent to 86 percent. Seventy-one percent of the eligible general population is fully vaccinated.

Shah said in a tweet Thursday that 19 of the 33 open COVID-19 outbreak investigations in Maine involve health care facilities or group homes.

Although most health care workers are vaccinated, some have staged protests in Augusta or complained in other formats, such as during the public comment period before the EMS board made its decision.

The spike in cases has resulted in cancellations of large events, including the Common Ground Country Fair, which was slated for this month. The Mitchell Institute Gala, which was scheduled for an outdoor tent at the Sheraton at Sable Oaks on Sept. 17, switched its event to a virtual format.

With new positive test results flooding into the state lab, Maine CDC staff have been scrambling to review and process all of the new cases. As a result, some of Thursday’s cases could include new infections reported to the state over multiple days. Shah said there’s a backlog of 1,800 tests that have to be combed through by state workers.

But the seven-day average shows the steady upward trajectory of new cases. The average stood at 316 on Thursday, which is nearly double the average two weeks, or one incubation period, ago and higher than at any point since late April.

The Maine CDC has tracked 76,913 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020. There have been at least 937 deaths linked to COVID-19 in the state during the pandemic.

The Maine CDC reported 160 hospitalizations on Thursday, a substantial jump in recent weeks. There were 67 people in critical care and 26 on ventilators.

“Two weeks ago, one incubation period ago, there were 93 people hospitalized, 67 fewer than today,” Shah said.

Total hospitalizations have tripled in less than a month and the number of people in critical care has reached a level not seen since the winter.

Maine, however, continues to have among the lowest infection and death rates in the nation both for the current surge driven by the delta variant and for the entire pandemic. Maine ranks just behind Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts in terms of the states with the highest proportion of their population that has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

As of Thursday, 71.6 percent of eligible Mainers and 63 percent of all 1.3 million residents had received the full regimen of doses required for full vaccination. Inoculation rates have been climbing in recent weeks, after slumping during the late spring and early summer, as the delta variant causes new infections and vaccine mandates for certain workers were imposed.


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