The Mills administration is facing a second lawsuit – this time filed in state court – from health care workers opposed to Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for their industry.

A coalition of groups claims the requirement that all Maine health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 is unconstitutional and that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services failed to follow proper procedures when adopting the emergency rules. The groups contend the department should have obtained legislative approval and held public hearings on the proposed rule.

The lawsuit, which was filed last Thursday in Maine Superior Court in Kennebec County, seeks a repeal of the vaccination requirement before it takes effect on Oct. 1. While Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that the vaccination requirement will not be enforced until Oct. 29, administration officials show no sign of backing down from a policy that they contend is critical to protecting the most vulnerable and limiting spread of the deadly virus.

Individuals involved in the lawsuit warned Tuesday of “catastrophic” impacts on health care facilities if the requirement were to take effect because of the number of workers who will either quit or be fired rather than be vaccinated. But an attorney for the coalition also portrayed the vaccination requirement as an infringement on workers’ “fundamental right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity.”

“That right is at stake today,” attorney Ron Jenkins said during a virtual news conference organized by the Alliance Against Healthcare Mandates. “The vaccine mandate threatens that right and we are going to stand up for it.”

This is the second lawsuit filed against the Mills administration over the vaccine requirement for health care workers. A Florida-based group, Liberty Counsel, filed suit last month in federal court in Bangor, claiming the requirement flouts the constitutional right of free expression of religion by not allowing health care workers to opt out of vaccination on religious grounds.

Both lawsuits name Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as defendants.

A spokesman for Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, when contacted Tuesday about the most recent lawsuit, referred back to Frey’s comments about the federal lawsuit filed on Aug. 25. In that statement, Frey said his office would “vigorously defend the requirement against this lawsuit and we are confident that it will be upheld.”

“For many years the state has required health care workers to be vaccinated against various communicable diseases and, to our knowledge, that requirement has never been challenged,” Frey said at the time. “The state has now simply added an additional disease – COVID-19 – to the list of ones for which health care workers must be vaccinated. Federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have consistently upheld mandatory vaccination requirements.”

Health care workers already are required to receive vaccinations against measles, mumps, chicken pox and the flu to work in Maine. Yet a small but vocal minority of health care workers in Maine is now threatening to quit or be fired rather than get COVID-19 shots, raising concerns about exacerbated staffing shortages in some facilities and on emergency response crews.

Overall, vaccination has proven less contentious or political in Maine than in most other states. As of Monday, 72 percent of all eligible Mainers had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And the state ranked fourth in the nation behind Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts in terms of the total population that has been fully inoculated against the disease.

Infection and hospitalization rates are once again climbing in Maine as the more contagious delta variant drives a nationwide surge, particularly among unvaccinated individuals. While fully vaccinated individuals can still contract COVID-19 – so-called “breakthrough” infections – research shows that they are dramatically less likely to become seriously ill or die from the virus than the unvaccinated.

But the vaccination requirement for health care workers has sparked controversy, at least among some workers.

Emily Nixon, a registered nurse working with the Alliance Against Healthcare Mandates, said the various groups in the coalition behind this latest lawsuit had 2,500 members and that 1,800 indicated they would be willing to be terminated rather than get vaccinated.

“They will not allow the state nor anyone to coerce them into private medical decisions,” Nixon said.

Yet data from the Maine CDC show that the vast majority of health care workers in Maine already have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

For instance, 86 percent of workers at ambulatory surgical centers, 80 percent of hospital workers and 75 percent of those employed in assisted housing facilities had already been vaccinated as of July 31. Nursing homes reported that 73 percent of workers had been vaccinated by the end of July and the lowest percentage, 68 percent, was among workers in homes serving individuals with intellectual disabilities.

The 54-page lawsuit filed in Kennebec County Superior Court also contains a host of claims and rhetoric used by the anti-vaccination movement and groups or individuals attempting to cast doubts on the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.

For instance, the lawsuit calls the vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. “highly experimental” and refers to anyone who gets a shot as “a test subject.” The lawsuit even objects to the word “vaccine,” instead referring to the drugs as a type of “gene therapy.”

“Neither the department nor Maine healthcare providers should be permitted to make this decision for healthcare workers by requiring them to participate in a medical experiment in order to maintain their jobs,” the lawsuit reads. “If the rule is allowed to take effect, Maine’s healthcare workers will face a terrible dilemma: take an experimental vaccine and risk injury and death, or forfeit their jobs and careers.”

But as of Tuesday, more than 375 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines had been administered in the U.S. Pfizer received full authorization for its vaccine last month. Moderna has also applied to the FDA for full approval and Johnson & Johnson, maker of the third option in the U.S., said it hopes to do so later this year.

And while many people experience temporary side effects such as soreness at the injection site, headache or fatigue because the vaccines are designed to trigger an immune system response, serious side effects are extremely rare.

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