Barbara Lambert, left, of Forest Hill Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 22. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Maine Medical Center

AUGUSTA, Maine — The share of Maine health care workers vaccinated against COVID-19 rose sharply in September, the first full month after Gov. Janet Mills announced a vaccine mandate for the sector.

At the end of August, 84.6 percent of hospital workers and 77.7 percent of nursing home employees were vaccinated. Those shares rose to 91.6 percent and 85.8 percent, respectively, by the end of last month, according to updated data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Significantly more workers have likely gotten vaccinated since Sept. 30.

There are two main public policy effects from the mandate: While it seems to be accomplishing its main goal driving up the share of vaccinated workers in the health care sector, it is also likely to pile onto longstanding pandemic workforce shortages at certain providers.

The latter is happening at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where 85 percent of workers were vaccinated as of September’s end. The hospital cited resignations of key staff ahead of its decision to close its neonatal intensive care unit and has suspended pediatric and childhood admissions amid the worker shortage, leading to calls for Mills to add a testing alternative to the mandate.

But COVID-19 vaccination rates among the state’s health care facilities increased dramatically in September. Within Northern Light Health, 95.5 percent of the system’s more than 14,000 employees were vaccinated this week, Chief Human Resources Officer Paul Bolin said Wednesday. That number was 92.9 percent on Sept. 29. Only 117 employees left the system due to the vaccine requirement and the elimination of  philosophical and religious exemptions.

At the same time, just 41 of the 304 facilities the state is tracking had the 100 percent status needed to comply with Mills’ mandate. Central Maine Medical Center had the third-lowest rate among hospitals at 85 percent, while MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta at the lowest mark with 81 percent of workers vaccinated. The state will use October data to guide enforcement actions, the Mills administration said.

The nursing home numbers are a positive sign but do not account for the staffing changes that may take place when the mandate is in effect, said Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, medical director of Durgin Pines in Kittery and head of the Maine Medical Directors Association. He expected rates would probably be closer to 95 percent before that happened, but staff challenges would still remain.

While required vaccinations for workers can help protect vulnerable people, Fazeli said his residents are still at risk if visited by family members who are not vaccinated.

“We used to think that vaccination rates over 75 percent would be good, but as we keep working hard on this every day, it’s clear we need to be closer to 100 percent for the pandemic to be over,” he said.

The dashboard also does not include dental practices or emergency response workers, who are also required to be fully vaccinated. Sam Hurley, the director of Maine EMS, said the agency’s data shows 95 percent of 5,600 workers have been vaccinated as of the end of September, for an increase of 5 percent. Workers have until Friday to get a Johnson & Johnson shot and be fully vaccinated by Oct. 29, when Maine will begin enforcing the mandate.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said it would be premature to discuss how the state would enforce the requirement, but the state will allow health care setting to hire someone who has gotten their first shot prior to their start date, as long as they wear protective equipment and test weekly until they are fully vaccinated.

Lambrew said the state was happy with the increase and would continue to encourage vaccinations up until the deadline. She restated the state’s support for fully vaccinating workers as the best way to protect employees and patients from the virus and said instances like Millinocket Regional Hospital vaccinating all employees without losing any to the requirement shows the gap can be closed.

“It is possible to fully vaccinate health care workers against a communicable disease and not have staff shortages,” she said.

BDN writers Michael Shepherd and David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.