Three Maine nursing homes announced they will close this week and more closures are likely soon as the facilities that care for the state’s frail and elderly population struggle to overcome severe staffing shortages.

A trade association that represents 92 of the state’s 93 nursing homes confirmed the closures Wednesday and called on the state to release millions of dollars that could be used to support an industry suffering from COVID-19 fatigue, the rise of the delta variant, and a long-term care provider community stretched too thin.

The closures will leave dozens of residents and families uncertain about their future. The Maine Health Care Association estimates that about 100 residents in the three nursing homes will be affected by the closures.

The nonprofit Maine Health Care Association said in a statement Wednesday that without additional financial support, “We will see an acceleration in nursing home closures. Today, our message to state government is to expedite the release of these emergency funds that were approved in a bipartisan manner by the Legislature and this Administration.”

Just hours after the names of the three nursing homes were made public, the Mills administration announced it would release $146 million in state and federal funding to Maine nursing homes, residential care facilities, adult family care homes and hospitals to support workforce recruitment and retention.

“Given rapidly changing circumstances due to the Delta variant, the Department is expediting the COVID-19 supplemental payments that Governor Mills signed into law as part of the biennial budget,” Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon. “This unprecedented amount of supplemental payments for long-term care facilities will help them cover costs resulting from the pandemic and address longstanding workforce challenges as we continue to pursue our broader plan to expand and strengthen Maine’s health care system.”

The three nursing homes were identified by Angela Cole Westhoff, president and CEO of Maine Health Care Association, in a phone interview Wednesday night. She said more closures are likely, but she wouldn’t name the others because the closures haven’t been publicly announced.

“We have been hearing rumors that these three are just the first of more (closures) to come,” Westhoff said. “The closures will have a huge impact on the residents and their families.”

The three nursing homes are the Island Nursing Home and Care Center on Deer Isle; Country Manor in Coopers Mills, a village in Whitefield; and the Somerset Rehabilitation and Living Center in Bingham, Westhoff said. Somerset Rehabilitation announced Wednesday that it would close. North Country Associates, a health care company based in Lewiston, owns and operates Country Manor and Somerset Rehabilitation, according to the company’s website.

Island Nursing Home is licensed for 70 nursing and residential care beds. Country Manor is licensed for 52 beds, and Somerset Rehabilitation for 34 beds, according to the health care association.

Not all of the beds in the facilities are occupied. The association estimates that about 100 residents will need to be relocated once the facilities close, but where they will go remains to be seen.

Island Nursing Home will close on Oct. 26 because of a lack of staffing and a shortage of housing for contract workers brought in from outside Deer Isle to work at the facility, its board of directors said in a news release Monday. It opened 40 years ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the nursing home’s decline, the Ellsworth American reported. Board members said a shrinking workforce, the facility’s remote location, harsh Maine winters and the lack of affordable housing contributed to the decline, which began 10 years ago.

“Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national health care staffing crisis has reached a critical point,” the board told the Ellsworth American. “Facilities like ours can no longer find qualified staff. For Island Nursing Home, it is no longer a matter of location or funding … there are simply not enough qualified staff available in a rapidly declining health care workforce.”

The newspaper interviewed Bill MacDowell of Blue Hill, a guardian for one of the nursing home’s residents.

“She’ll be devastated,” MacDowell said. “She spent her life in Blue Hill.”

Island Nursing Home will reach out to other nursing homes in the area to see if any beds are available, said the executive director of the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman program in Augusta. The ombudsman program will try to make sure everyone at the homes has an acceptable discharge plan.

“We will talk with family members. What we want to see is that every resident’s rights are protected,” Brenda Gallant told the Ellsworth American. “Some people may want to relocate closer to other relatives. In general people want to be close to the community they came from … We will do whatever we can to help.”

In 2020, 14 residents at the Island Nursing Home died in a COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Ellsworth American. The outbreak began in November 2020 and spread rapidly among the population of 62 residents and 85 staff members. All residents and 38 staff eventually tested positive.

The Maine Health Care Association conducted a recent survey of its 200 provider members, which includes other health care facilities besides nursing homes, to try and identify what’s behind the workforce shortage. The survey showed workforce shortages “are crippling the ability of long term care facilities to meet the needs of residents.”

The majority of nursing home operators surveyed believe that worker burnout and stress were the main reason staff left. Reluctance to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates came in a close second.

Other reasons included retirement, health insurance costs, COVID-19 fears, scarce child care, unemployment benefits and that workers were finding better opportunities elsewhere in the health care industry.

Gov. Janet Mills on Aug. 12 mandated that all hospital and nursing home staff, as well as dentists, EMS personnel and other health care workers, be vaccinated against COVID by Oct. 1 and receive a final dose of vaccine by Sept. 17.  The governor said this will protect vulnerable residents and patients.

Segments of Maine’s health care industry were already moving toward vaccine mandates. The state’s two largest hospital networks, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, as well as Millinocket Regional Hospital, had already announced plans to require that all staff be vaccinated. But the state mandate will apply to more than 150,000 workers at hospitals, clinics, group and nursing homes, dental offices, EMS agencies and other licensed health care facilities.

Westhoff said the CNAs, nurses, and direct care staff who make up the backbone of a nursing home’s staff should be regarded as heroes for working through the pandemic.

“We commend the caregivers who continue to stay the course. It is going to be very challenging going forward,” Westhoff said.

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