Central Maine Medical Center Director of the Pharmacy Bruce Campbell places newly arrived COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer in St. Mary's Regional Medical Center's ultra cold freezer, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. Vahid Rohani, St. Mary's pharmacy director, opens the freezer supplied by Bates College. The two hospitals are coordinating on the vaccination effort. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

The vast majority of Maine’s health care workers are accepting early coronavirus vaccines as their employers pursue an opt-in approach that seems to be working better in hospitals than in long-term care facilities for now, according to early reports.

Maine has been one of the leading states in vaccinating residents since the December rollout began, with 2.5 percent of people here getting initial doses by Tuesday, according to a Bloomberg News tracker. Only three states have vaccinated a larger share of residents so far.

Vaccine acceptance has been increasing steadily across the country, according to a mid-December report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, with 70 percent of Americans saying they would get vaccinated. The biggest reasons for hesitancy included concern about side effects, mistrust of the federal process and the newness of the vaccine. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been deemed safe and effective by the federal government.

Maine’s biggest health care systems are reporting high acceptance rates among staff. Scheduling challenges have kept some from getting vaccinated for now as employers encourage education over required inoculation. Not every system is tracking refusal rates, however, and long-term care facilities appear to be seeing lower acceptance rates.

High-risk hospital and long-term care facility employees and residents were first in line for the vaccine because of their close proximity to sick patients. Public health officials say it is critical to get health care workers vaccinated as quickly as possible to maintain the workforce needed to care for sick patients as cases continue to climb in Maine and across the country.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Monday the CDC has heard of acceptance rates between 70 percent and 90 percent among hospital workers. But he said it may be difficult to get a full picture until vaccinations of the first priority group are complete, as limited supply and constraint affects how quickly employees can get vaccinated.

“Not every hospital can or should vaccinate all of their staff in one day,” he said.

There are many factors providers need to consider. Vaccine clinics need space to maintain social distancing. A 15- to 30-minute observation period is recommended after a person gets a shot to make sure they do not suffer any adverse effects, which could impair staffing levels.

Health care workers could have several reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated outside of not trusting the shots, ranging from those pregnant or breastfeeding, believing they are already immune to the virus because they have already been sick during the pandemic or may be at risk of an allergic reaction.

Bangor-based Northern Light Health, an organization with several locations in northern, eastern and central Maine, has offered the vaccines to 6,500 of its 11,000 employees who are eligible to get the vaccine in the first group. James Jarvis, senior vice president at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said 11 percent of those have declined so far, but largely because their schedule does not match up with when the system’s vaccine clinic is available.

Jarvis attributed the system’s high acceptance rate to months of education around the vaccine. Northern Light is tracking who does not get the vaccine, but Jarvis said it would not be “appropriate” to require the vaccine because some are wary of the vaccines’ emergency approval. Instead, the system is continuing to offer future slots to those who decline.

A survey at Augusta-based MaineGeneral Health found 79 percent of nearly 3,000 workers want the vaccine, according to spokesperson Joy McKenna. The system has 4,500 employees overall, but some work in long-term care facilities and will be vaccinated through a separate program. McKenna said the system has vaccinated about a quarter of employees so far.

MaineHealth, which has multiple hospitals across southern Maine and is based in the epicenter of the pandemic here, had vaccinated about 13,700 health care workers at the end of Monday, said spokesperson John Porter, including a small number of second doses.

He said there has been “no shortage” of people looking to get vaccinated, but the system is not tracking why someone might not sign up for vaccination. The system is also not requiring employees to be vaccinated — but urged them to “educate themselves and take advantage of this opportunity” to ensure the safety of colleagues and family, Porter said.

Acceptance rates in the long-term care facility vaccination program are not as clear. It is run by the federal government, which has contracted it to two major pharmacy chains, CVS Health and Walgreens. The state has fulfilled its commitment to vaccinate workers and residents of nursing homes, but other care facilities were delayed by a reduction in vaccine doses two weeks ago.

That program had reported nearly 3,600 vaccines to the state as of Monday, but Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long did not know the breakdown between staff and residents. CVS Health has anecdotally seen more staff than residents hesitate to be vaccinated, said spokesperson Tara Burke, although the company does not have full staff rosters. Burke declined to provide detailed information on staff vaccinations in Maine.

Staff acceptance rates Bangor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center stand now at 60 percent, compared with 80 percent for residents, said Brett Seekins, the nursing home’s CEO and administrator. The state has not offered guidelines on requiring vaccination. If they did, it would be considered, he said. For now, those who wish to remain unvaccinated can do so.

“We are respecting their decision,” Seekins said.

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