Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The union representing more than 900 nurses at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center is demanding that the Bangor hospital cancel elective procedures and most patient visits as it admits record numbers of coronavirus patients and deals with an outbreak that has infected at least 30 people.

The Maine State Nurses Association has been asking the hospital to take those measures for a few weeks, according to a Nov. 24 email lead labor representative Todd Ricker sent to the hospital’s human resources department.

Besides seeking to end elective procedures and visits to patients during the current surge, the union has also pushed the hospital to limit chaplain visits, improve its use of protective equipment and ensure that patients infected with the coronavirus are kept separate from those who are not thought to be infected, according to the email.

The demands come as EMMC has just announced an outbreak of COVID-19 that had infected 27 workers and five patients as of Thursday evening, with many of those cases coming from a surgical post-operative unit known as Merritt 3.

As infections keep surging across Maine, the Bangor hospital also saw a new uptick in coronavirus inpatients this past week, with a record-breaking 38 admitted on Thursday, up from 15 a week earlier. That was more than the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to Maine’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, on the same day, although Maine Med had a greater average number of patients each day over the past week: 32 compared to EMMC’s 27.

EMMC representatives have said that some workers who tested positive in the new outbreak were exposed to the virus out in the community. An EMMC spokesperson declined to answer a question about how many of the cases may have been spread within the hospital.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating what may have caused the outbreak, Director Nirav Shah said on Friday. He noted that hospital outbreaks can be the result of the virus infecting workers as it spreads in the surrounding community.

Masked workers leave Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The hospital has taken some steps to contain the outbreak, including increasing testing, cutting off visitors to the post-operative unit and quarantining its patients for 14 days. It has also required some level of protective gear for all its workers throughout the pandemic, and it plans to keep doing so even as some of its frontline workers have started getting vaccinated against the coronavirus this week.

However, the nurses union has been pushing to adopt more precautions throughout the 411-bed Bangor hospital.

All Maine hospitals delayed elective services during the first few months of the pandemic in the spring to ensure they would have enough staff and resources in the event of a surge. But as the virus keeps surging to unprecedented levels this fall, only one Maine hospital — Maine Medical Center in Portland — has so far made the decision to systematically start delaying electives.

EMMC has not yet made that decision, according to Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for parent organization Northern Light Health.

Hospitals have pointed to the medical risks of delaying routine care such as colonoscopies and mammograms, and they have said that they are safe places for patients even during the current surge. Hospitals also faced steep shortfalls when delaying elective procedures last spring, with Northern Light losing $100 million in patient care revenue across its 10 hospitals.

An EMMC spokesperson said that patients receiving tests or outpatient services were probably not exposed to the virus as part of the current outbreak.

Another challenge of the current surge is that it’s exposing more and more health care workers to the virus outside the hospital, forcing them to quarantine when their services are needed more than ever and making it harder for hospitals to fill staffing gaps.

EMMC separates providers who treat coronavirus patients from those who treat non-coronavirus patients “to the extent possible,” according to Spruce. The hospital has not eliminated patient visits from family members or chaplains, but she said it is “continually” re-evaluating the visitation policy.

EMMC also has “ongoing discussions” with the nurses union and “has implemented suggestions where possible to keep patients and staff safe,” Spruce said.

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