PORTLAND, Maine — It's been a long and exhausting year and a half for health care workers across Maine. People working on the frontlines say working long hours under strict safety guidelines has caused some to reach their breaking point.
“Even without a vaccine mandate we have seen people leave the field because of exhaustion, reasonably so," said Lisa Henderson, the Executive Director of Leading Age Maine and New Hampshire.
Henderson's organization as well as the Maine Association for Community Service Providers, Maine Council on Aging, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, and Behavioral Health Community Collaborative wrote a letter to Governor Janet Mills this week asking for help.
“We are in full agreement that vaccinations are our way out of this pandemic," Henderson said. “What we’re concerned about is the timeline for interpretation and the need to have contingency plans.”
Earlier this month, Mills announced an October 1 deadline for all health care workers to be fully vaccinated. At this point, all unvaccinated employees have one option of finishing the vaccination process before that date-- getting the single Johnson & Johnson shot.
The request made by the health care professionals who serve older and more vulnerable Mainers is to extend the timeline by 45 days or wait under a federal mandate is announced, whichever comes sooner.
“We can get through it, but we need more time," Henderson said.
The issue facing long-term or home care facilities and organizations is losing staff. Hendersons said some facilities are expecting to lose 5-10% of staff after October 1. That number might not seem like a lot, but Henderson said at this point in the pandemic every employee helps.
Another request made in the letter asks the Governor to allow new employees who got their first of two shots to begin working at health care facilities despite not being fully vaccinated.
“We’ve gone nine weeks without a direct care application. I’ve never seen that in the time I’ve been in the field. I’ve been in the field for 24 years," Catherine Thibedeau, the Executive Director of Independence Advocates of Maine said.
Thibedeau said having conversations with unvaccinated employees has been challenging as many employees who have worked with her for 20 years might leave the workforce in a few weeks.
“Clearly an extension would be extremely helpful," she said. “There is a big unknown and we’re just preparing for that right now.”
The Mills administration responded to the letter in a statement that noted at least 70% of health care workers across all sectors are already fully vaccinated.
"The emergency rule’s October 1 effective date provides health care workers adequate time to get vaccinated, particularly given that the vaccine is free and widely available throughout the state," the statement read in part.
The state has also obtained 10,000 more doses of the Johnson & Johnson shot and they will be prioritized for health care workers.
Another concern pointed out by Henderson is health care organizations are looking for more state-led contingency plans to address crisis scenarios. For example, if more employees than expected leave a certain home or facility, patients could be forced to get transferred, or facilities might have to close down.
“Right now, we have a potential crisis and we need plans in place, so people are not displaced," she added.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine CDC did have a meeting with the organizations on Friday, Henderson said. She said it felt more like a "slap in the face" as the meeting was two weeks after the announcement, not two weeks before.
Henderson added many people asked questions in the chat feature of the virtual meeting but the questions and pleas were "ignored."