Members of the Maine National Guard arrive for orientation an empty wing at Central Maine Medical Center, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills said she is considering deploying more Maine National Guard members to relieve the state’s burdened health care system after touring the emergency department of the state’s largest hospital on Friday.

The Democratic governor told reporters at Maine Medical Center in Portland that her office is considering “all possible avenues” to provide support to facilities, which are struggling to maintain services during the ongoing COVID-19 surge. She did not say how many more National Guard members she might deploy.

That comes after Mills took other emergency measures to boost the health care workforce in December, including deploying more than three dozen guardsmen to fill support roles at hospitals and nursing homes and assisting with monoclonal antibody treatment. The federal government also sent ambulance crews to eight Maine hospitals.

The state health care system has labored through in the last few months as COVID-19 cases have surged alongside hospitalizations. The super-contagious omicron variant — which evades vaccine protection more than other strains but is relatively mild — is expected to send Maine cases soaring in the coming weeks. Hospital officials already fear they are seeing its effect with staff already subject to Mills’ vaccine mandate getting sick or exposed to the virus.

On Wednesday, the MaineHealth system overall reported over 800 absences due to COVID-19 cases or exposure. At Maine Medical Center alone on Friday, Jeff Sanders, the hospital’s president, said 350 workers were out due to COVID-19.

“Our team is tired, they’re exhausted and they’re frustrated,” Sanders said.

Mills maintained her position that getting more people vaccinated is the way out of the pandemic, with the majority of hospitalized patients remaining unvaccinated.

“It’s very clear to me seeing the patients in the ICU and the staff working their long hours to try to save people’s lives that these patients are there because they haven’t gotten vaccinated, plain and simple,” she said. “That’s the best thing we can do to get beyond this surge.”