Millinocket Regional Hospital will require all staff to receive the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines when they receive final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, making the hospital the first in Maine to mandate coronavirus inoculations for employees.

“Millinocket Regional Hospital is committed to providing a safe working environment for all employees and the safest environment possible for patients to receive care,” said Dr. Robert Peterson, the hospital’s chief executive officer, in a statement Thursday. “This commitment to safety requires that difficult decisions be made to assure these goals are met.

“Due to the severity of the delta variant of the coronavirus, the resurgence of the pandemic both locally and nationwide, and the growing backlog of evidence that the current vaccines are safe and effective, Millinocket Regional Hospital will require all staff to receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine upon final approval by the FDA. All staff will be required to be fully vaccinated within 6 weeks of final FDA approval.”

The decision comes amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases around the United States and as hospitals and health care providers grapple with whether to mandate vaccines for employees. Several Maine hospitals said earlier this week they were in discussions about vaccine requirements after national organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association, urged them to do so.

Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said he expects more Maine hospitals to follow Millinocket in announcing vaccine mandates for employees, though the decision can be a difficult one.

“They know the highest priority is the safety and health of the patients but then you’re very concerned about your own employees and their well-being, so it’s a really tough decision,” Michaud said. “You don’t want to impose on people but I think it’s becoming more and more clear the safety of the patient is the number one priority, and I think you will see a lot more movement in the direction of Millinocket for sure.”

National Nurses United, the largest union and professional organization for registered nurses in the U.S., said in a statement Thursday that the organization agrees with employers and elected officials who have announced such mandates that vaccination is a critically important part of a comprehensive public health program for infection control.

“We strongly believe all eligible people should be vaccinated, while respecting the need for medical and religious accommodations,” the union said. The union’s affiliates include the Maine State Nurses Association, whose members include nurses at Millinocket Regional.

“In addition to encouraging vaccination, NNU is calling for proven and effective public and workplace infection control measures that the entire country must be taking now, including protecting nurses and health care workers with optimal, single-use PPE, providing safe staffing levels, robust and routine testing, proper isolation, contact tracing and notification, proper quarantining, ventilation, universal masking, social distancing and diligent hygiene,” National Nurses United said. “These measures are equally important for other settings that employ essential workers, including retail, grocery, food industry and more.”

Across Maine, 78.8 percent of hospital staff were vaccinated as of June 30, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Millinocket Regional has one of the highest rates of vaccination with 94.66 percent of employees vaccinated. The hospital employs 225 people.

Employees will be required to get either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine after those shots get full approval, and not the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Todd Phillips, an infection prevention specialist for Millinocket Regional. Phillips said that’s because recent research has shown the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be much less effective against the delta variant.

“Our faith in the Johnson & Johnson and its ability to protect against the delta variant has waned,” Phillips said. He said employees who have already received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be considered fully vaccinated since there is currently no government-approved option for them to boost their shots with a different vaccine.

Medical exceptions will also be allowed, with documentation.

Phillips said he is proud of Millinocket Regional’s staff for already having a high vaccination rate and is hopeful the full FDA approval may give the last few people who have not been vaccinated the confidence they need in the shot.

“We’re not mandating to punish,” he said. “We’re mandating because we’re health care providers. We have to do what’s in the best interest of protecting our community.”

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