AUGUSTA, Maine — The sponsor of a longshot bill to reverse Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers likened the super-contagious omicron strain to an inoculation in a Tuesday hearing.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Tracy Quint, R-Hodgdon, would bar the state from mandating any COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers for at least five years after the vaccine was first approved by federal regulators, undoing a policy implemented by Gov. Janet Mills last year was largely successful in getting workers vaccinated but also led a small share to depart the field.
The hearing previewed what could be a continued political fight going into the 2022 elections as Mills’ likely opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage, has pledged to undo the mandate if he wins back the Blaine House. Dozens of people testified on Tuesday during a remote hearing, while more than 200 others submitted written testimony. The measure is sponsored by Republicans and faces an uphill road to passage in the Democratic-led Legislature.
Several proponents of the bill brought up concerns about health care staffing shortages and a recent directive that allows workers who have tested positive for the virus but are not experiencing symptoms to treat patients in the event of extreme staffing shortfalls — a policy one Lewiston hospital has used in the past week.
But some testimony also repeated incorrect information about the risks associated with the COVID-19 vaccine, including unsubstantiated links between vaccination and reproductive health, or understated the risks of the disease itself.
Quint, a longtime nurse, argued the omicron variant could serve as “nature’s vaccine” and infect enough people to create herd immunity, citing the variant’s rapid spread among both unvaccinated and vaccinated people. Early studies have suggested that the new strain is less severe on average, but unvaccinated people still face a far greater risk of hospitalization.
U.S. hospitalizations set a new record on Tuesday. Maine had set a new state record with 403 hospitalizations on Monday, while the state estimates the omicron variant now makes up at least 70 percent of new cases.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends the vaccine for pregnant women, along with women hoping to become pregnant, citing the potential harms of contracting the virus during pregnancy as well as several studies showing no links between the vaccine and infertility nor increased risk of miscarriage following vaccination.
Bill opponents pointed to clinical trials and ongoing monitoring showing the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and argued lack of vaccinations among health care workers could interfere with the treatment of vulnerable patients.
The bill’s premise was “factually incorrect,” said Lisa Harvey-McPherson, a lobbyist for Northern Light Health who spoke against the bill. She noted the vaccines have undergone broad clinical trials and said her system has administered more than 360,000 doses without any large-scale reports of major side effects. By contrast, roughly 80 percent of patients in the ICU with COVID-19 across Northern Light Health are unvaccinated, she said.
Peter Bridgman, a retired physician from Yarmouth and cancer patient who is taking a medication that suppresses his immune system, said he saw his antibody levels drop after beginning cancer treatment last fall and contracted COVID-19 despite being vaccinated.
“People with cancer who might be immune suppressed must be surrounded by people who have been vaccinated,” he said.