The sign for the emergency department outside Houlton Regional Hospital. Credit: Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times

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Houlton Regional Hospital and Cary Medical Center in Caribou are cutting pay for hospital staff as both wrestle with a sharp drop in revenue and an expected rise in coronavirus patients.

At Cary, there will be a 10 percent pay cut for all regular staff except nurses and respiratory therapists, while hospital executives will experience “deeper cuts,” according to CEO Kris Doody. Several staff members, primarily support staff for physicians, have become furloughed due to the lower volume of patients.

In Houlton, physicians, certified registered nurse anesthetists and administration will see a 10 percent cut in pay. Nurse practitioners, physician assistants, managers and other employees over a certain salary level will be paid 5 percent less. Lower-level managers and salaried employees will receive a 2 percent cut, and hourly employees will be asked to take one day of furlough each month.

Doody said that Pines Health Services health centers, which include locations in Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield, Washburn and Van Buren, have experienced similar cuts.

The salary reductions and mandatory furloughs at HRH are limited to a maximum of six months.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The cuts at both hospitals come even as they steel themselves for a rise in cases of the virus that has sickened hundreds and killed 10 in Maine as of Saturday.

HRH has stopped performing non-essential surgeries, such as pulmonary function testing, cardiac rehab services and elective procedures since March 17 to slow the spread of the virus. It’s also seen a sharp drop in emergency room visits as more people stay home.

“It’s a very interesting paradox we find ourselves in,” Shawn Anderson, director of operations at HRH, said. “While we’re being asked to ramp up and be prepared for this pandemic, at the same time all people are being asked to stay home, and as a result our volume throughout the hospital is down dramatically.”

Matters went similarly at Cary, where Doody said the loss of elective surgeries and other procedures has led to a “downturn” in activity. She said the hospital announced the pay cuts to its staff this week.

“Being financially responsible to the organization, we have to do these cuts,” Doody said.

The cuts in Houlton, which were first reported by the Portland Press Herald, and Caribou come as hospitals across the country are stocking up on resources and scaling back nonessential services to ensure they can handle a surge of coronavirus cases. While those efforts are important from a public health perspective, they have posed a distinct challenge for many rural hospitals that already struggle to pay the bills amid declining numbers of patients.

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Between 2014 and 2018, Houlton Regional Hospital was among the Maine hospitals that consistently had negative operating margins, according to the most recent information from the Maine Health Data Organization. Fourteen other Maine hospitals also ended 2018 in the red.

Meanwhile, administrators have yet to hear how exactly funds for small hospitals in the recent $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package will be dispersed or how much they can expect.

“We couldn’t wait to hear what might be coming or speculate that there might be funds coming our way,” Anderson said. “We do not believe in layoffs, and accordingly we needed to find some ways to reduce our single greatest cost, which is payroll.”

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Staff have been supportive in the wake of the cuts, which were decided upon at the beginning of last week, he said.

“Not a single person liked what we had to do, but everybody understood and responded remarkably,” he said.

It was not immediately clear if other hospitals in The County were issuing cuts in preparation for the virus’s spread. Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent and the Saint John Valley Health Center in Van Buren did not respond to requests for comment.

Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital President Greg LaFrancois said there were no plans to cut pay or benefits of employees.

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BDN writers Charles Eichacker and David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.