A man walks out of the former Scarborough Downs horse racing track on Wednesday Feb. 3, 2021, where Maine Health set up a 30,000 square-foot makeshift COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine health care centers are facing a staffing crunch during the COVID-19 pandemic, but vaccination mandates are not the cause, the chief of the largest health network in the state said Tuesday.

Maine Health Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mueller said during a news conference that the organization has a staff vacancy rate of about 10 percent. He described that level of staffing loss as “really, really difficult” for the organization, especially at a time when hospitals are full.

However, Mueller said, the shortage can be attributed to an aging workforce and workers leaving the industry due to the stress of working during the pandemic. He said the coming vaccine mandate will likely improve staffing because hospitals will lose fewer workers to illness.

“It’s very clear it helps to preserve and protect our workforce,” Mueller said, adding that 2 percent of the workforce might leave when the state mandate goes into effect.

The state’s COVID-19 mandate for health workers goes into effect Oct. 29. It’s currently the subject of court challenges that have so far not overturned it.

Maine has had more success controlling the COVID-19 pandemic than other states that are about the same size. However, the state is also coping with a spike in hospitalizations due to COVID-19. Maine Health officials said the vast majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated.

The number of daily news cases of COVID-19 in Maine has slowly declined over the course of the past two weeks.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, on Monday announced a series of programs, including tuition forgiveness, to help the state navigate its need for more health care workers.