Katie Pulk receives congratulations from co-workers and family in a drive-by celebration on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, for winning an award for her work at John F. Murphy Homes in Auburn. The provider is one of many being challenged by workforce shortages. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

It is only six days into 2022, and the John F. Murphy Homes organization has seen an average of two new COVID-19-related staff absences a day.

That may not seem like much in a company with 835 workers centralized in Auburn. But CEO Todd Goodwin said the compounding number of absences is enough to destabilize scheduling for the residential and community support the Murphy Homes provides.

Each week is now going to be more of an administrative nightmare as the organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities and autism works to ensure those who need constant care are able to still get it. That often comes at the cost of day programs — which can be just as important for clients — or deferring tasks and assigning people across departments.

For staff who are not sick, it means longer hours and unpredictable schedules with overtime payouts higher than ever, Goodwin said.

“I can’t say enough about our staff, who continue to give so much of themselves,” he said.

It may just be a preview of the stress coming for Maine’s health care system. As the pandemic continues to drive record-high rates of positive cases, state health officials warn that the omicron variant is likely to soon cause near-vertical case growth like in other states.

The strain on systems has already been a large topic of conversation for months, particularly after Gov. Janet Mills’ fall vaccine mandate raised concerns about departures. While omicron appears to be milder than other strains, it is far more contagious and evades vaccine protection more, though fully vaccinated and boosted people are well-protected from serious cases.

Rising cases have already slammed Maine’s two biggest hospital systems, Northern Light Health and MaineHealth, made headlines Wednesday after they saw more than 1,000 absences on one day. Hospitals are trying to manage the stress on their emergency rooms by carefully watching patient flow and canceling non-urgent procedures across the board, said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anticipating workplaces of all kinds will soon be burdened by rising cases, shortened its isolation policies to five days, with a person being able to return to work if they are asymptomatic or have resolving symptoms for another five days. It is too soon to know whether those changes will help, Michaud said.

Many nursing homes in southern Maine have seen staff COVID-19 cases rise from about one a week to several in the past month, said Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, the medical director at Durgin Pines nursing home in Kittery.

He is worried about going by the new CDC policy universally because it could lead to outbreaks among his vulnerable patients or more sick staff. But because staff needs are becoming greater, Fazeli said he has started assessing employees on a case-by-case basis to see if they are low-risk enough to return.

In the meantime, some homes have merged units or consolidated employees. Staff are also working in different areas to cover gaps or working double shifts. Contract workers are also in high demand.

“There’s no other option to mitigate the surge,” Fazeli said.