With days to go before health care workers must get their shots against COVID-19 to keep their jobs, Central Maine Healthcare is cutting services and lobbying the Mills administration to add a testing option to the vaccine mandate.

Steve Littleson, president and CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, the parent company of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, said he appealed to Mills’ office to allow for weekly or more frequent testing as an alternative to vaccinations to avoid cutbacks to neonatal intensive care, trauma and pediatric services, and to prevent postponing some elective surgeries. Littleson, who noted that he is in favor of the vaccines, said that 230 or more workers out of the company’s 3,000 affected employees could resign or be fired rather than get vaccinated.

“We have patients to care for, and if there’s a practical solution other than reducing services and cutting bed capacity, I’m all for it,” Littleson said.

Mills rejected the idea of relaxing the mandate in a written statement Tuesday that also blasted Republican lawmakers who escalated their criticism of the mandate and joined the call for a testing alternative.

“Health care workers must take every precaution to protect themselves and those they serve,” Mills said. “Regular testing is not nearly as effective at protecting peoples’ health as vaccination, which is why it is not a part of our policy and it is not a part of the forthcoming federal policy requiring all health care workers to be vaccinated.”

Studies have shown that the unvaccinated are more likely to transmit COVID-19 than people who have been vaccinated.

Littleson said about two-thirds of the Central Maine employees who would lose their jobs over the vaccine are nurses. Eighty-four already have resigned over the mandate, about 3 percent of the company’s workforce.

He believes Central Maine Healthcare could keep 90 percent of the workers who don’t want to get vaccinated if the state would add a testing option. Littleson said a delay beyond Oct. 29 would be another option to give the system more time to persuade people to become immunized against COVID-19.

Patients that Central Maine Medical Center normally would treat, a child who breaks a bone on a playground or people who need intensive care after getting in a car accident, will be transferred elsewhere, he said.

“We are not going to be able to care for all of those patients, and we will look to other hospitals to take up the slack,” Littleson said.

The Mills administration’s mandate that all health care workers get COVID-19 shots – announced in August – began Oct. 1, but isn’t being enforced until Oct. 29. That deadline means Friday is the last day a health care worker could get vaccinated against COVID-19 and be in compliance with state rules because someone who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the shot.

REPUBLICANS CRITICIZE MANDATE

The looming deadline and impact on services at Central Maine Medical Center prompted Republican leaders in the Legislature to once again criticize the mandate and call for the Legislature to overrule Mills. Democrats, however, have majority control of the Legislature and have backed the Democratic governor’s public health protections.

“Mainers should not be denied health care because the governor refuses to keep hospital beds available,” House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham and Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake wrote in a letter to Democratic leaders. “It is not hyperbole to suggest Mainers will die as a result of the governor’s mandate if we refuse to convene the Legislature and enact a testing exemption.”

Mills’ statement fired back at Republican critics, saying they had politicized the pandemic and consistently opposed public health responses that have saved lives.

“To say that Maine people will die as a result of expanded vaccination is repugnant, dishonest and an insult to every Maine person who has lost their life to COVID-19, especially those who contracted the virus from a health care worker who was supposed to protect them but chose not to get vaccinated,” Mills said in the written statement. “It is, in fact, this policy, that will keep both health care workers and their patients alive.”

The state’s other major hospital systems – MaineHealth, Northern Light Health and MaineGeneral Medical Center – have not called for a testing option or a delay. Some states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, have permitted unvaccinated health care employees to remain on the job if they submit to frequent COVID-19 testing.

Jeffrey Austin, vice president of government affairs for the Maine Hospital Association, said that a new federal rule announced by the Biden administration in September will require health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and there isn’t a testing option. The details of the new rule, including when it will go into effect, haven’t yet been announced.

“Any state flexibility may be quashed by an overarching federal rule,” Austin said. “We haven’t seen the details on the federal rule yet, but I think that it will be something the state would consider when responding to any testing opt-out requests.”

OTHER PROVIDERS ON BOARD

MaineHealth officials have advocated for mandatory employee vaccination against COVID-19 with no testing option.

“The health system believes that vaccination of the full care team is the best way to protect MaineHealth’s workforce, patients and the communities it serves during the pandemic. Vaccination is proven to be both safe and effective. As such, MaineHealth remains supportive of the state of Maine requirement that all care team members be vaccinated by Oct. 29,” John Porter, MaineHealth spokesman, said in a statement. MaineHealth is the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals.

Officials with Northern Light Health, which includes Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta did not indicate that they would be in favor of a testing option, in statements sent to the Press Herald.

Joy McKenna, MaineGeneral spokeswoman, said in a statement that vaccinations are the “best way to provide for the safety and security of our patients and staff.”

But Littleson said even though more than 90 percent of the staff will be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 29, some of the employees who are refusing the shots work as nurses in specialized fields, such as neonatal intensive care, making them difficult to replace.

“If you have a couple of neonatal nurses leave, you can’t just pull them from somewhere else. They have specialized training,” Littleson said. “What we will have to do is selectively curtail certain services.”

Stephen Costello, vice president of business development and communication for St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, said in a statement that the hospital is willing to help CMMC, and “has the capacity to receive additional patients and stands ready to assist in any way possible to provide the best care possible for patients in our community.”

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