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'The playing field has changed': Northern Light Health leader urges universal masking in schools

Dr. James Jarvis recommended that all teachers, staff, and students wear masks while indoors at school.

BANGOR, Maine — One of Northern Light Health's lead doctors on the COVID-19 front is recommending all teachers, staff, and students wear masks in school as districts decide their own policies for the upcoming academic year.

Dr. James Jarvis made that statement, echoing the U.S. CDC's guidance issued in late July, that recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

"We want to talk about disruptions of socialization, it is having your child go to school, and then have the school shut down and then the child going back and having that continue throughout the school year," said Dr. Jarvis. "It is much better for us to start off with a clean slate, doing all the preventative things we can do that's possible to keep our children safe and keep them in school for the entire school year."

During the news conference, Dr. Jarvis and Paul Bolin, senior vice president of Northern Light Health, covered healthcare worker vaccination rates, the Delta variant, and booster shots, which the U.S. CDC issued guidance on Wednesday morning.

Evidence shows people's immunity from the vaccines begins to reduce around eight months after their final dose. 

Jarvis said there is not enough data on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the CDC and FDA to issue guidance on a booster for people who got the J&J shot.

Jarvis said 80 percent of patients in Northern Light Health hospitals are unvaccinated and are sicker than COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized before the Delta variant appeared.

"The Delta variant is definitely causing us to serve more patients with more severe illness. And so, if you are unvaccinated at this time and you are eligible for vaccines for you to get vaccinated," said Jarvis.

Bolin spoke on vaccination rates of health care workers, some of whom threatened to quit under the new statewide health care worker vaccine mandate issued Friday.

He said 81.5 percent of Northern Light Health staff are vaccinated, an increase of three percent in the last two weeks. He added that some staff who initially said they would quit changed their minds after getting more information about the vaccine, and ultimately chose to get the shot.

"I think it's a very personal decision for many employees who are struggling with that decision. We are steadfast in our approach that we think this is the right thing for our patients and our staff and our communities," said Bolin. 

"We're trying to provide as much support and education and information to respond to questions that employees might have to minimize any folks that feel that they might need to leave healthcare as a profession. Northern Light Health along with all other healthcare providers in the state are under the same state mandate, so leaving healthcare is what we're talking about, not just leaving Northern Light."

Bolin said employees can get vaccinated on work time, and that the system has sites at each location, as well as pop-up locations to offer shots for staff.