Officials who represent mental health, substance use disorder services and nursing homes say the looming COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees could result in staffing shortages, prompting one provider to consider asking the Mills administration for another extension to the deadline.

Workers need to get the J&J shot by Oct. 15 to comply with the Oct. 29 deadline to be immunized against COVID-19 because it takes two weeks after the shot is given for the recipient to be considered fully vaccinated. The other two shots approved for use by the federal government – Pfizer and Moderna – are a two-shot regimen spaced three and four weeks apart, so it is already too late to get those shots and be fully immunized by the deadline.

A Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention website that details vaccination rates for health care workers has published data through the end of August that will likely be updated next week to include September. Through August, the website indicates that among about 16,000 workers in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and facilities for people with intellectual disabilities, vaccination rates lagged hospitals by roughly 7 to 15 percent.

Hospitals from three of the four major health care networks in Maine are now reporting 90 percent or higher compliance with workers having one more week to get the J&J shot. At the end of August, compliance at nursing homes and assisted-living centers was 77 and 78 percent, respectively, and facilities for people with intellectual disabilities were at 70 percent.

Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, which represents the nonprofits in Maine, said she didn’t know the current compliance rates for their providers.

But she said she’s heard enough concerns about difficulties in complying with the mandate that they are strongly considering sending a letter to the Mills administration asking for another delay in when the mandate takes effect.

The mandate took effect Oct. 1, but at the request of the alliance and some other health care associations – including those representing nursing homes and home health care workers – Gov. Janet Mills delayed enforcement of the statewide policy until Oct. 29.

“Next week is going to be hard,” Shaughnessy said. “We have real concerns what it’s going to look like. We have some agencies that are going to have to shut down.”

Shaughnessy said a lot of workers in the mental health and substance use disorder treatment field can get a job outside of health care – such as at Starbucks or Walmart – earn more money and not be compelled to get the COVID-19 vaccine. A Biden administration mandate is expected to go into effect later this year that will require employers with 100 or more workers to require that their employees get the vaccine or be tested weekly.

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said since they haven’t yet received a letter asking for an extension to the mandate, “we can’t respond to a request that we have yet to receive.”

Angela Westhoff, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said that they will not be asking for another extension to comply with the mandate, but staffing could be difficult for some nursing homes when the mandate kicks in.

“We still have a ways to go before we get to the 100 percent mark,” Westhoff said. “We don’t know yet the true impact of the vaccine mandate.”

Three nursing homes shut down in early September over staffing shortages.

SOME WILL SEEK GRACE PERIOD

Westhoff said some nursing homes are struggling with staffing, a problem that predates the pandemic. But she said the mandate “from a public health perspective, is the right thing to do” to protect patients and staff.

Westhoff said while they will not be requesting a delay to the mandate, they will be asking for a “grace period” for new hires to be fully vaccinated, so that nursing homes can get people working after employees who refuse to get vaccinated leave.

She said, for instance, if a job candidate has had their first shot, is waiting on the second shot and a nursing home has a severe staff shortage, it would be helpful if they could be permitted to start work before they got their second shot.

Some health care providers have had success getting most of their workers vaccinated. At Sweetser, a Saco-based mental health provider, 97 percent of workers affected by the mandate are in compliance. The agency is now offering signing bonuses to try to boost staffing.

“We have experienced staff departures due to the mandate, but have adjusted programming as needed,” Susan Pierter, a Sweetser spokeswoman, said in a statement. ” Our goal is for everyone to be vaccinated, and we continue to engage our employees in the facts related to the effectiveness and availability of the COVID-19 vaccine. Recruitment remains a challenge, and has become more challenging with the mandate. ”

Note: This story was updated Friday, Oct. 8, to remove a sentence that misstated the Maine Health Care Association’s role in a previous extension of the mandate enforcement. It did not sign onto a letter seeking the extension.

 


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