NORWAY — With the delta variant of COVID-19 currently responsible for almost every reported case of the virus, providers are eyeing Oct. 1, the date that Gov. Janet Mills set as the deadline for all health care workers in Maine be vaccinated by.

Cathleen Abate, left, a registered nurse at Stephens Memorial Hospital, was the first employee to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Stephens Memorial Hospital

According to SMH’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Knapp, by mid-August more than 80% of the hospital’s care team had been vaccinated anyway.

“At this time we are focused on educating our unvaccinated colleagues on the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, answering their questions and making it simple and easy as possible to get their shots ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline set by the state,” Knapp said in an email statement to the Advertiser Democrat, noting that MaineHealth had already announced its mandatory vaccination policy before the state directive was made. “While we recognize this is a difficult decision for some of our remaining unvaccinated care team members we do anticipate the majority will ultimately make the choice to vaccinate. We have already seen several care team members get their first dose of the vaccine.”

The mandate is currently being challenged in court in a case filed by nine anonymous plaintiffs against Maine officials as well as five Maine health care systems. Some health care groups have asked for extensions of the Oct. 1 deadline.

One department manager of a local health care provider, who asked not to be named, confirmed the approach, saying that 85% of their staff were vaccinated before the state mandate was announced Aug. 12.

“I understand the angst some feel about it,” they told the Advertiser. “People deserve the choice, but we’ve seen that the vaccine is safe. I think most probably will, but even if anyone decides to leave (over the mandate) I don’t expect it to cause any problems for us” as far as staffing.

“People should get vaccinated,” said Tony Simpson, a physician’s assistant the Maine Orthopedic Center in Norway. Simpson also serves on a federal disaster medical assistance team and has treated COVID patients in several states since the pandemic began. “It’s not just a responsibility to yourself but to those around you. The question, do we have less chance of passing the virus onto other people if we are vaccinated? Yes, although with the Delta variant they say that’s not the complete case at the moment.

“It’s a difficult situation. Should you mandate vaccinations? They mandated the past couple of years that people get the flu vaccination, those who do not have to wear a mask when working in hospitals.”

The Advertiser Democrat interviewed anonymously two health care workers in downtown Norway last week. One confirmed she had been vaccinated, the other declined to answer. Neither felt there would be much of an impact at their facility, with one stating that staff knows it is important to keep patients – especially the elderly and unvaccinated youth – safe.

“The vaccines are proven safe; we have a full year of data from the clinical trials and almost 200 million Americans have received a COVID-19 vaccination,” wrote Knapp. “In addition, the vaccines are very effective, and are preventing hospitalizations and health complications with COVID-19. To protect our colleagues, families, patients and communities, we believe it is critically important that all care team members be vaccinated and encourage all Mainers to please, get your COVID-19 vaccination.”

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