The Mills administration said Tuesday that it is “seriously considering” a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for Maine health care workers, making the announcement the day after two hospitals reported outbreaks and six weeks after the state hospital association urged taking such a step.

“(Gov. Janet Mills) is seriously considering a vaccination requirement for health care workers, a measure which is supported by the Maine Hospital Association and the American Medical Association,” Lindsay Crete, a Mills spokeswoman, said in a statement to the Press Herald. “The governor is discussing that possibility with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine CDC and expects to make a final decision in the coming days.”

The mandate has been under discussion since June, when Steven Michaud, Maine Hospital Association president, broached the subject with state health officials.

Crete said that “vaccinations are the best tool we have to protect the lives and livelihoods of Maine people and to put an end to this pandemic. It is crucial that health care workers and all eligible Maine people be vaccinated. Health care workers perform a critical role in protecting the health of Maine people and should take every precaution against this dangerous virus, especially given the highly transmissible delta variant.”

The delta variant has fueled a surge of COVID-19 cases in Maine and nationwide over the past month. The state’s seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 138 on Tuesday, about seven times higher than it was a month ago.

On Monday, Maine Medical Center in Portland reported an outbreak of nine cases among emergency department staff, and Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast reported eight staff cases. Maine Med updated the number of its cases to 14 total on Tuesday, with 10 in the emergency department and four unrelated cases on a medical floor.

The Maine CDC also is investigating outbreaks at two long-term care facilities, including 21 cases at Capitol City Manor in Augusta and four cases at Gorham House.

Michaud said Tuesday that he’s still pressing for a statewide mandate, but barring that the MHA plans to recommend all hospital workers get their COVID-19 shots.

“We thought delta was an incentive,” Michaud said. “Seeing these two (hospital) outbreaks really lends a lot of urgency to getting this done for health care workers.”

Michaud said “the ticket to patient safety” is a statewide mandate.

“If you want to do this the right way, the state should do this for all health care workers,” he said.

Some other states, including New York, California and Washington, have started mandating vaccines for some or all health care workers. Massachusetts and Connecticut are mandating vaccinations for staff at long-term care facilities and nursing homes. At least 10 other states are requiring that health care workers who don’t get vaccinated to wear masks and get tested at least once per week.

Two of the major hospital networks in the state – MaineHealth and Northern Light Health – have launched mandates. MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Med, set an Oct. 1 date for its 23,000 employees to be fully vaccinated, while Northern Light’s mandate will kick in once the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval to the vaccines. The vaccines are currently in use under an emergency use authorization, and full FDA approval is expected within weeks.

Millinocket General Hospital was the first hospital in Maine to require staff vaccinations. It took that step days before Northern Light and MaineHealth adopted their policies.

Michaud expects other hospitals will establish vaccination requirements, but it would be better to have a uniform mandate for health care workers across the state.

Meanwhile, the outbreaks at MaineHealth hospitals should be a reminder to employees to get their shots soon, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and the sister of the governor.

“With the delta surge, we really hope that the message is getting across that you really have to start getting vaccinated ASAP,” Mills said. To be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, workers need to get their shots within the next two weeks.

Andrew Soucier, spokesman for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, said that they are not publicly commenting on a possible statewide mandate for COVID-19 vaccines for health care workers.

“Our focus is on getting our employees vaccinated and encouraging vaccination in the community,” Soucier said.

At Maine Med, the outbreak is still under investigation by the Maine CDC, but hospital officials have said some of the cases were “breakthrough” cases among vaccinated workers.

Todd Ricker, spokesman for the Maine State Nurses Association, which represents the unionized nurses at the hospital, said in a statement that “we are deeply concerned about a COVID outbreak at Maine Medical Center. … We are assessing the situation to find out how this happened.”

Mills, of MaineHealth, said the details of the Maine Med outbreak are under investigation, but in general with the virus circulating more in Maine, patients are more likely to bring the virus into the hospital. Even though the hospital tests each patient upon arrival, they may initially test negative for COVID-19, and then, for example, three days into a weeklong hospital stay, test positive.

That positive test triggers tests for all health care workers who were close contacts of the patient, unless the health care workers were in full protective gear. Vaccinated staff may be asymptomatic but test positive for the virus, Mills said.

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