Gov. Janet Mills shot down a Tuesday call from top Republicans to pass a testing alternative to her vaccine mandate for health care workers after a Lewiston hospital moved to temporarily reduce admissions further.
Central Maine Medical Center posted on Monday that it was suspending pediatric, heart attack and trauma admissions. It came after the hospital gave a grim contingency plan to lawmakers on Friday that included cutting intensive care unit beds by 50 percent if it loses all workers who remain unvaccinated when the mandate goes into effect this month.
It is the first Maine hospital seeing wide-ranging effects on its operations with Mills’ mandate set to be enforced late this month and President Joe Biden’s administration implementing a superseding one. Neither has a testing alternative, which the Lewiston hospital and some lawmakers want. Mills ruled it out on Tuesday, though a top legislative Democrat did not.
Central Maine Medical Center cited “unprecedented healthcare workforce shortages” in a Tuesday statement. A COVID-19 pandemic workforce shortage has led to 500 job openings across the hospital’s parent group, which has said it could lose up to 200 workers of 3,000 in total unless they decide to get vaccinated within a few days.
For now, patients who arrive at the Lewiston hospital’s emergency room will be screened and stabilized before possibly being transferred to another hospital. The trauma diversion status would be reviewed every 24 hours, while the halting of pediatric care will continue until further notice. Heart attack patients were admitted again on Tuesday. It will also be closing its neonatal intensive care unit at the end of the month due to resignations of key workers.
The challenges have led to the hospital’s officials to call on Mills to provide testing options. Steve Littleston, the president and CEO of Central Maine Healthcare, told the Portland Press Herald that would reduce 90 percent of the system’s expected departures due to the mandate.
Republicans have joined in, with Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, writing in a Tuesday letter to Democratic leaders that the Legislature should return for a special session to discuss amending the mandate, saying “it is not hyperbole to suggest Mainers will die” if that does not happen.
The Democratic governor shot back in a statement later, calling that remark “repugnant, dishonest, and an insult to every Maine person who has lost their life to COVID-19.” She said her policy “will keep both health care workers and their patients alive” and noted that the upcoming federal policy — which will supersede the state mandate — has no exception.
Mills maintained last week that vaccine mandates will not cause workforce challenges, saying she still believes a requirement is the best way to keep employees and their patients healthy. The Maine Hospital Association, which helped the Democratic governor craft the mandate, also affirmed last week that it supports the mandate as is, as do the state’s other major hospitals.
But Christine Kirby, a spokesperson for Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, struck a different tone, saying Jackson has talked with Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, one of the local lawmakers who wants a testing alternative, and would take action in the coming days.
“President Jackson’s number one priority is keeping people healthy and safe both from COVID-19 and other unrelated injuries and illness that may require hospital care,” she said.