A sign urges people to stay away from Stillwater Health Care nursing home in Bangor to protect people at the facility on April 21, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Good morning from Augusta.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It’s not designed for humans,” said Dustin Sirabella, store manager of Blue Seal in Bangor, on the livestock drug ivermectin, which some stores are seeing shortages of as people have sought it to treat COVID-19, despite no evidence it is effective and the potential for dangerous overdoses. “So I am not sure why people would use it for that.” Here’s your soundtrack.

What we’re watching today

One Maine nursing home’s planned closure shows a vaccine mandate is only one of many problems in homes, but it can be the final blow. The opposition to Gov. Janet Mills’ vaccine mandate for health care workers has been loud over the past few weeks, but it has been unclear exactly what the effect will be on the different parts of Maine’s health care system. We are getting initial examples as three nursing homes announced plans to close this week.

The Country Manor Nursing Home in Coopers Mills blamed many things, including years of declining occupancy, a rural setting and general staffing shortages during the pandemic marked by many sectors raising wages to compete for employees. But six direct care and nursing staff were refusing to get vaccinated, which was a final blow, said Doug Gardner, vice president of operations for North Country Associates, a company that consults for the home’s owner.

Wider trouble is nothing new. Maine nursing homes have long faced financial and workforce challenges. Five facilities closed in 2018, according to the Maine Health Care Association. Low reimbursement rates and Maine’s aging workforce have often been cited, although a Deer Isle nursing home that announced its closure earlier this week pointed to lack of affordable housing for staff.

COVID-19 only compounded those challenges, with 94 percent of facilities now saying that they face staffing shortages. The effects of the vaccine mandate will likely be felt unevenly. As of July 31 — the latest state data update — vaccination rates among nursing home workers varied drastically, from just over 40 percent in some facilities to more than 90 percent in others. 

Those figures predate the mandate and more workers have certainly been vaccinated since. It is also likely that Maine nursing homes would be required to get employees vaccinated later this year even without Mills’ mandate, with the federal government implementing its own as a condition of facilities receiving Medicare funding.

New trouble in nursing homes right now is worrying because Maine is seeing the highest level of daily COVID-19 cases in months and dealing with hospital capacity problems with intensive care beds stretched. Patients without the virus are already remaining in hospitals longer because they cannot go to nursing homes to recover. This vicious circle is stunting the state’s ability to respond to COVID-19.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Hate crimes quadrupled in Maine last year amid a national rise,” Lia Russell, Bangor Daily News: “Hate crimes against Black people and members of the LGBTQ community were most prevalent. There were 32 reported incidents involving anti-Black or anti-African American bias, and 29 that involved anti-LGBTQ bias, according to the data, which come from law enforcement agencies. While Maine’s population has grown more diverse over the past decade, it is still the whitest state in the U.S.

— “Maine begins proactively informing watchdog of child deaths amid scrutiny of the system,” Caitlin Andrews, BDN: “The state is ramping up its review of the deaths. It partnered with Casey Family Programs to investigate the current system and recommend improvements that are due by October. The Legislature’s watchdog committee greenlit an additional review last month with a focus on issues Alberi raised, as well as Maine’s overall insight into its system. The first of those legislative reports is due in January.”

Maine is publishing child death data back to 2007. The dashboard includes instances where there was evidence of abuse or neglect regardless of prior department involvement and the cause of death was homicide. The current information does not include the four child deaths that sparked the most recent bout of scrutiny due to ongoing criminal proceedings. The state has released child death information before in certain ranges, but Department of Health and Human Services Commission Jeanne Lambrew said the more sweeping report was meant to increase transparency around the department as critics call for changes.

— “Maine COVID-19 hospitalizations reach highest level in 7 months amid case surge,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “The virus has spread here despite Maine’s high vaccination rate, with roughly three-quarters of adults fully vaccinated, according to federal data. Unvaccinated people continue to drive both transmission of the virus and hospitalizations. Since late January, when the first Mainers became fully vaccinated, unvaccinated Mainers have accounted for 89 percent of hospitalizations here, according to state data.”

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Jessica Piper, Caitlin Andrews and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...