Four northern hospitals in rural Maine were too small to qualify alone for COVID-19-related federal assistance, so they banded together as a region to get the help they desperately needed.
The tactic worked.
Aroostook hospitals were not among the eight in Maine where the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent ambulance teams to help transport patients between facilities during the COVID-19 surge.
But Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent, Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Northern Light AR Gould in Presque Isle and Houlton Regional Hospital all were dealing with the same staffing shortages and influxes of COVID-19 patients as the larger hospitals. The Aroostook hospitals applied for the help as a region and FEMA has assigned them two temporary paramedics to share among the four facilities.
For the next month FEMA paramedics Daniel Mata and Shanna Maxwell, based in Texas, will provide non-emergency patient transports to hospitals, nursing homes and other health care agencies locally and outside of Aroostook.
The shortage of trained EMTs is at a crisis level in Aroostook County and has left many local ambulance departments strained throughout the pandemic, said Shawn Anderson, CEO of Houlton Regional Hospital. Though temporary, the FEMA crew will provide help at a time when the omicron variant threatens to increase COVID-19 hospitalizations.
While all four hospitals have seen a leveling off of COVID-19 hospitalizations since mid-January, their facilities are bracing for potential increases. Staffing shortages among municipal EMS departments prompted them to seek solutions to patient transport and care prior to a COVID-19 influx occurring.
A significant surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations could result in the need to transport non-COVID patients to other area hospitals or even to facilities downstate, said Kris Doody, CEO of Cary Medical Center in Caribou.
“They could even transport outside of Maine if that was needed,” Doody said.
Cary Medical Center will serve as the host hospital for Mata and Maxwell, who arrived on Thursday. Their deployment to Aroostook marks the first time they have assisted Maine hospitals. With a combined 45 years of experience as paramedics, they see their service as a way of giving back to communities.
“We hope to give [hospitals and paramedic crews] some relief,” Mata said. “EMTs have been burnt out the same way that nurses have been burnt out.”
Each hospital would need a daily average of 10 COVID-19 inpatients in order to qualify individually for FEMA help, so Anderson rounded up support from fellow hospital leaders in Aroostook to submit a regional application.
The collaboration has been a welcome one for hospital leaders across Aroostook, said Daryl Boucher, vice president of operations for AR Gould.
“It is nice for the hospitals to have this kind of support for the existing EMS system, even on a temporary basis,” Boucher said.
The FEMA assistance could extend past a month, with state approval, Doody said.
It’s not the first time FEMA has been deployed to Aroostook County, although it’s the first time for medical purposes. FEMA teams have helped during major spring flooding in Fort Kent and Fort Fairfield areas in past years.