Nurse practitioners Patricia Hutchins, center, and Nicole Merrill, right, wait Tuesday for another St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center employee before they demonstrate a clinical-focused COVID-19 exam in the parking lot tent. The demonstration was to show how an exam is performed. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — For 22 years, Janet Paione worked as lead mammographer at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.

Nurse practitioner Patricia Hutchins demonstrates a clinical-focused exam Tuesday in the St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center parking lot tent with the help of volunteer Bob Cavaliere, a St Mary’s staff member. With a real patient, the nurse practitioners measure vital signs and ask the CDC guidelines questions to determine if a person is sick. The tent is an extension of the emergency room and helps to preserve equipment and reduces the hospital’s exposure to COVID-19. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Then COVID-19 arrived in Maine.

With her mammography department all but shut down as non-essential — it used to screen 25 to 30 patients a day but now handles just a handful of urgent cases each week — Paione offered to move to a new temporary position.

For the past week, she’s worked security shifts at the hospital’s coronavirus testing tents and as a screener at the emergency department door, where she takes temperatures and escorts people to the right place in the hospital. It’s different than the career she’s built over two decades, but it gives her the same number of hours for the same pay, and she doesn’t have to use vacation time while work in her own department has slowed to trickle.

“I’m getting to see a lot of outside people that I don’t normally see. So it’s been kind of nice,” she said.

As health systems across the state shift away from preventative and elective care in the wake of COVID-19, their employees are shifting too. Primary care doctors are leaving their offices to work in hospitals. Nurse anesthetists are moving from the operating room to critical care units. Nurses, medical assistants and others are staffing COVID-19 screening tents and tables.

“It’s a brave new world,” said St. Mary’s spokesman Steve Costello, whose own job shifted this week.

“It’s a brave new world,” said St. Mary’s Region Medical Center spokesman Steve Costello, whose job shifted this week to working in the communications office. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Costello, who helped run the Sun Media Group, including the Sun Journal, for nearly 30 years, began serving as St. Mary’s executive director of philanthropy last year. Now he’s also handling external communications so the health system’s regular spokesman can focus elsewhere during the pandemic.

“Like me, we have to find what people’s skill sets are and what their qualifications are and utilize them to the best we can,” he said.

Two of Maine’s largest health systems, Northern Light Health in Bangor and MaineHealth in Portland, both have employees who are working outside their regular positions.

“Many staff, both clinical and non-clinical, are going above and beyond right now, stretching beyond their job descriptions to pitch in and help where needed and appropriate,” said Northern Light spokeswoman Suzanne Spruce. “It’s all hands on deck.”

MaineHealth’s flagship hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, is caring for the bulk of COVID-19 patients in the county with the highest number of cases. That’s led to surgeons there handling non-surgical patients, primary care doctors working in the hospital, specialists looking at taking on critical care patients.

“We’re not asking people to get too far. We’ve had orthopedic doctors suggest they’d be willing to do work in the emergency department, but we haven’t done that. We haven’t done that yet,” said Joel Botler, chief medical officer for Maine Med. “There are things we may be pushed to do depending on how busy we get.”

Nurse practitioner Patricia Hutchins peers out of the COVID-19 testing tent located in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

At Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston, some medical practices have been temporarily consolidated as few patients seek primary care. Bariatric surgeons are working in general surgery since bariatric surgeries are considered elective and able to be postponed. A volunteer “talent pool” has 248 people willing to change jobs, including those willing to handle emergency phone triage, work in the supply room or help at the pharmacy.

St. Mary’s began its own temporary staffing office last month, when it became clear that elective surgeries and other non-emergency needs were going to slow to nothing while critical care and COVID-19-related needs were going to grow.

Changing jobs is voluntary, according to the health system. And while some minor training may be required, no one is asked to work beyond their skills or credentials.

For Paione, the mammographer-turned-screener, it’s worked out.

“I think it’s nice we have the option,” she said.

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