AUGUSTA, Maine — Emergency medical services workers will have more time to comply with Maine’s new vaccine requirement for health care workers, and dispatchers will be exempt after a state regulator voted on Monday to slightly rein in Gov. Janet Mills’ mandate.
The Maine EMS Board’s decision only affects workers under its purview and it did not have much authority to change an emergency rule advanced by the Democratic governor’s administration requiring workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.
But it was a notable example of pushback after the board heard of testimony from agencies fearful of losing staff to the mandate. While the rule has support of groups including the Maine Hospital Association and others representing nursing homes and dentists, it has received more pushback from emergency personnel, especially in rural areas with fewer vaccinated people.
Monday’s meeting had to be rescheduled from last week after the EMS board’s 200-person streaming cap was exceeded. Dozens of EMS workers spoke in opposition to mandatory vaccinations during a public meeting on Monday morning, saying they or their colleagues may quit rather than be made to take the vaccine. A smaller number agreed with the mandate.
The bulletin ultimately adopted by the EMS board on Monday excluded only emergency dispatch centers as employers covered by the vaccine requirement, noting dispatchers do not have contact with patients. The board said it would also not enforce proof of vaccination until Oct. 15, two weeks longer than the deadline for vaccination is set to begin.
Opinions on the 15-member board, which is mostly made up of paramedics, other emergency workers and medical professionals, were also split on the mandate. The measure endorsed by the board will ask the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to consider additional input from emergency service providers as it continues rulemaking.
The concerns about staffing around the mandate highlight “just how fragile our system is,” said Tim Beals, the CEO of Waterville-based Delta Ambulance and a board member. But the board noted it was only tasked with implementing the rule and must enforce it.
“We cannot change this train’s tracks,” said Scarborough EMS Deputy Chief Richard Kindelan, who also sits on the board.
The board also adopted a policy that employees with a medical exemption to the vaccine could continue in their positions by regularly taking rapid COVID-19 tests. That exemption in state law allows medical professionals to exempt people from mandated vaccinations if they find it “medically inadvisable.”
Spokespeople for Mills’ office, the health and public safety departments did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the board’s move.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.