LEWISTON — Officials at the city’s major hospitals are confident they have followed state guidelines for administering COVID-19 vaccinations, even if that means some remote workers and personnel who no longer meet the state’s eligibility guidelines for the first phase have received vaccinations.

Officials of Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center said the hospitals have followed state guidelines in administering vaccines to employees, first prioritizing patient-facing health care workers, then moving on to other employees who met the requirements of Phase 1A of Maine’s program.

The statements came after health systems across Maine have faced scrutiny over the prioritization of vaccine doses, as older Mainers continue to struggle to secure vaccine appointments.

Officials at MaineGeneral in Augusta were forced to defend the rollout of its vaccine clinic last week after hospital system donors were among those who received the first shots. On Sunday, MaineHealth came under fire for vaccinating out-of-state consultants, and for moving ahead with vaccinations for all employees, including those working from home, despite updated rules that exclude remote workers.

Officials at Lewiston hospitals said they followed guidelines put in place at the start of Maine’s vaccine rollout, and then “pivoted” their programs last month after the state refined the guidelines for health care workers to exclude those working remotely.

According to John Alexander, chief medical officer at Central Maine Healthcare, 1,800 employees have been vaccinated so far, which is about 66% of staff. That includes 767 clinical staff such as doctors and nurses; 296 contractors that meet the 1A requirements, and 236 administrative or non-clinical staff.

“Team members who worked directly with COVID patients or around them, including nurses, doctors and environmental services workers, came before other team members who worked in clinical settings or were part of the health care infrastructure,” he said. “We pivoted on Jan. 13 after the Maine CDC announced its changes to vaccine administration and have been following the updated guidelines since then.”

Ann Kim, director of corporate communications for Central Maine Healthcare, said Tuesday that two members of the Central Maine Healthcare board, who are over 70, were vaccinated.

Alexander said Central Maine Healthcare’s contractors include staff in areas like environmental services, food services, biomedical services, radiology and pharmacy. He said those staff “would have been offered vaccine under the guidelines currently in place at the time.”

It’s unclear when hospitals were first notified of the changes in the guidelines, but according to the Portland Press Herald, MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron said he was told in late December, but made the decision to continue vaccinating all employees to protect hospital infrastructure.

The Maine CDC updated the Phase 1A guidance on its online dashboard Jan. 13. The CDC did not respond to a request Tuesday to clarify when the changes were made, or when hospitals were notified.

The state’s guidelines now stipulate that “Paid and unpaid personnel, such as health care administrators, who do not have direct contact with patients or the potential for direct or indirect exposure to infectious materials, but work in health care settings on a regular basis will qualify for vaccination under a later phase.”

During a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, state health officials acknowledged that the guidelines had changed since the initial rollout, but said they reserve the right to take vaccine doses away from hospitals that violate guidelines.

Stephen Costello, spokesman at St. Mary’s in Lewiston, said Monday that all St. Mary’s employees have now been offered a vaccine after the system first prioritized patient-facing health care workers.

He said St. Mary’s held clinics for all health care workers, EMS and other high-risk groups, eventually reaching out to independent health care workers in the region, “including dentist offices, chiropractor offices, mental health agencies and others who are part of the 1a group to help get them vaccinated.”

As part of Phase 1A, the state includes “personnel who work with aerosols, such as in dental fields; health care providers with prolonged contact with patients; practitioners in behavioral health, optometry, school nurses, and environmental services workers at health care practices.”

Costello said the health system has “not contacted donors, board members or anyone else not in a health care patient-facing situation or in one of the high-risk priority categories.”

He said if any employees still working remotely were vaccinated, “they would have been offered the vaccination as part of what the state CDC defined as group 1A at that time.”

Costello said Monday that because St. Mary’s does not have a large staff, “everyone is expected to be available to help in any appropriate capacity as we roll out vaccines to the public.”

The hospital is working with the state to hold community clinics, including at Lewiston’s B Street Clinic, which Costello said has been prioritized as a “significantly underserved population.”

“Many staff members, including myself, were working at the vaccination clinics in various capacities and interacting with the public,” he said. “Employees having had the vaccination helps avoid a spreading event while the public is attending the clinic.”

Phase 1B began Feb. 1 and includes Mainers 70 0r older, adults of all ages with high-risk medical conditions and other front-line workers.

As of Monday, roughly 55,000 of the 195,000 vaccine doses administered so far in Maine have been given to those 70 and older, who are now the state’s top priority.

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