Emily Wilder, a critical care nurse at Maine Medical Center, speaks at a press conference outside the Portland hospital Sept. 1. Members of the nurses union called on the hospital to not roll back pandemic protections the hospital put in place last year. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

With cases of coronavirus hospitalization on the rise, Maine Medical Center’s registered nurses union is urging hospital leadership to maintain the COVID-19 protections it put in place last year to protect staff members.

“Just when we thought that we might be getting over the worst of COVID, the Delta variant hit, and now it feels like the end is no longer in sight,” said Madison Light, a registered nurse. “Nurses and other caregivers are exhausted, frustrated and stretched to their limits to provide the best care we can to those who come to us for help.”

According to Maine Center for Disease Control data, 180 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sept. 6, including 65 in critical care and 30 are on ventilators.

Last month, Maine Medical Center and Maine Health aligned their paid time off policy for COVID-19 exposure to be consistent with recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

To that end, employees who are forced to quarantine due to an exposure to COVID-19 outside the hospital will no longer receive quarantine pay. Instead, they will be required to use paid time off or work from home until they are cleared to return to work. The hospital said it will still pay full quarantine pay to individuals who test positive for COVID-19 regardless of the source of their infection.

Beginning next month, the practice of sending employees home from work with pay after their 37th week of pregnancy will be discontinued. Instead, the hospital will again allow women the option to work to the end of their pregnancy if it is safe to do so.

Union leaders, the hospital said, were notified of the changes earlier this summer and there were no objections either in writing or at the early August bargaining session. The union, the hospital said, didn’t make their opposition know until Aug. 27, after the changes were communicated to hospital managers.

Additionally, the hospital said it will continue to offer workplace accommodations for employees treating patients who are positive for COVID-19.

“We continue to provide those accommodations to care team members based on an evaluation of their individual medical conditions consistent with federal guidelines,” the hospital said.

Nevertheless, Jonica Frank, a registered nurse in the operating room, remains concerned.

“If we start taking steps backwards, we will leave the door open to further harm, and to the depletion of our workforce and our ability to care for all the patients who come to us from many different parts of our state,” Frank said. “Our employer must continue all the protections it has made to frontline employees, especially those who become ill, those who are vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, and, of course, the pregnant nurses and other caregivers who are at advanced stages of their pregnancies.”

The hospital said it understands the frustrations.

“Nurses and our entire care team are doing an extraordinary job caring for our community under what are incredibly challenging circumstances during the latest COVID-19 surge,” the hospital said in a statement. “The frustrations of our nurses and other care team members are understandable, and MMC remains committed to doing all we can to support them through this challenging time.”

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