by Sarah Craighead Dedmon
A demonstration planned in support of Washington County health care workers affected by the state COVID-19 vaccine mandate is planned for 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Machias boat landing on Route 1.
Governor Janet Mills last week announced the vaccine mandate, which requires all Maine health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 as a condition of employment. The announcement came on the heels of two COVID-19 outbreaks affecting health care workers in southern Maine hospitals.
The Maine Hospital Association and other groups representing dentists and nursing homes expressed support for the measure, according to the Bangor Daily News, and the state’s two largest hospital networks this month announced vaccine mandates of their own.
Nationwide, vaccine mandates are hotly debated, but increasingly common. Massachusetts, California, Washington state, and Maryland have all announced mandates affecting various sectors such as state workers, teachers, and health care. In the cases of Maryland, California, and Washington, options to opt-out via frequent testing, or to request an exemption for medical or religious reasons, are included in the mandate.
Maine’s mandate does not contain exemptions, a fact local midwife Bjarni Thomas fears could lead to the loss of health care services across rural Washington County, where staffing has been a perennial struggle, even before the pandemic.
“We would be willing to test weekly, to continue to wear our masks, to continue to wear the PPE,” said Thomas, referring to personal protective equipment. “We just want to have the choice to have a little more time.”
Thomas, who is helping to organize the Saturday rally, says the public is invited to participate in the peaceful demonstration and to bring “respectful, tactful, and appropriate signs.”
“I am pro-vaccine,” said Thomas. “This is really about community because there are so many people in this community right now that are devastated that they will lose their livelihoods. This is to show support for them.”
As of last week, 80.8 percent of health care workers associated with Down East Community Hospital in Machias were fully vaccinated, and 85.6 percent at Calais Regional Hospital were fully vaccinated.
Moosabec Ambulance Service Chief and Advanced EMT Renee Gray says the Jonesport-Beals-based service has already lost staff early in the pandemic, and now stands to lose more because of the mandate.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen on October 1st,” said Gray. “Do we go out of service? When people call 911, they’re going to have the potential of extra-long wait times.”
Gray predicts she will lose more than 50 percent of her staff in October.
"I am for the vaccine," said Gray, who this year operated vaccination clinics that treated more than 500 health care workers. "But there are those who aren’t ready, and we need to respect it."
The Maine Board of Emergency Medical Services Thursday announced an emergency meeting set for Aug. 23, to discuss the vaccination mandate.
“EMS in Washington County is a fragile system. It has been for a decade or more,” said Gray. “We get by, but our shifts are filled with people’s leftover time. Up until now, it’s been working. But not everybody wants to do EMS.”
Down East Community Hospital spokesperson Julie Hixson says it’s too soon to say what impacts the mandate will have on the Machias hospital.
“We are gathering data and weighing our options to be sure we are ready to continue to provide the quality care we currently produce,” said Hixson. “Once we learn more, and know what services will be impacted, we will put the necessary plans in place so we can continue to provide safe, quality care.”
Rep. Will Tuell (R-E. Machias) and 59 other legislators this week signed a letter asking Mills to reconsider the state’s position. Tuell said he “wholeheartedly” supports an end to the mandate.
“Healthcare workers have many different options, vaccination rates are already upwards of 70 percent, and this mandate will displace so many at a time when our system can ill afford to lose them,” said Tuell. “Beyond that, it could have unforeseen consequences on our fire departments, emergency services, and other indirect providers of healthcare.”