LEWISTON – In testimony urging the state to consider a testing alternative to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for health care workers, Central Maine Healthcare’s CEO warned of the “perfect storm that lies ahead after Oct. 29,” when enforcement of the rule begins.

Court documents show CMH president and CEO Steve Littleson submitted his unsworn written statement to Kennebec County Superior Court on Oct. 11. It was submitted as additional evidence in the group Coalition for Healthcare Workers Against Medical Mandates’ lawsuit against the state to overturn the vaccine requirement.

A spokesperson for CMH confirmed the veracity of the document, which was posted to the website for Maine Stands Up, but said that CMH is in no way aligned or associated with the group, or claims made within the suit. The purpose of the statement was to demonstrate the strain the system is experiencing with the impending mandate.

But, as Littleson writes, central Maine’s largest health care provider and parent company to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, is running out of options.

“We are committed to increasing vaccination rates among our team members and broader communities,” Littleson said. “But despite our efforts the impending COVID-19 vaccine requirement will diminish our workforce and severely impact our ability to provide for the healthcare needs of our communities.”

He said that on top of 600 open positions that predated the pandemic, CMH stands to lose up to 150 staff members, most of whom are nurses or medical assistants, by the end of next week.

Already, more than 80 workers have resigned or signaled their intent to leave rather than get vaccinated, CMH confirmed last week.

The requirement that health care workers are vaccinated, which comes under an existing rule that also mandates vaccines for the common flu, measles, mumps and other diseases, is “forcing employees to choose between leaving the profession or get vaccinated,” Littleson said.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew repeated Wednesday that her department has been working closely with health care providers since the start of the pandemic, and continues to do so as some, such as CMMC, experience service disruptions as the result of staffing shortages.

“There’s no cookie-cutter formula for how we do it,” Lambrew said during the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s weekly media briefing.

“It varies specifically based on what those particular staffing needs are, but we stand ready to continue that work in the coming weeks or months.”

That work includes direct payments for financial relief, worker training programs, workforce recruitment and retention programs, and facilitating mutual aid agreements to share workforces across systems, Lambrew said.

Some of these efforts work faster than others. A training module for certified nursing assistants takes eight hours and could get someone on the job within a week, Lambrew said. But others are not so quick and easy, like figuring out how to combat burnout among health care providers and backfill Maine’s retirement-age workforce.

“But we feel confident that our leaders in our health care system will do what they’ve been doing, which is provide the high-quality accessible care that they have throughout the pandemic in the forward-looking weeks,” Lambrew said.

Littleson did not appear so confident in his statement, however. Not only is there a massive workforce shortage at CMH, but the pandemic has been a huge hit on the system’s finances.

Should more workers leave, CMH will have to hire more traveling nurses, whose hourly rate can be upward of $200 as the result of the competitive labor market.

“We are in no condition to withstand the perfect storm that lies ahead after Oct. 29,” Littleson said.

Meanwhile, state health officials reported 649 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, which includes 68 in Androscoggin County, 24 in Franklin County and 59 in Oxford County.

Among the seven additional deaths were two residents of Franklin County, bringing the total number of deaths related to COVID there to 22 individuals.

For the seven-day period ending Wednesday, the tri-county region of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties recorded an average of 3.73, 5.88 and 5.38 new COVID cases per 10,000 residents per day, respectively. Statewide, the seven-day average per capita was 3.65 new daily cases per 10,000 residents.

As of Wednesday, every county in Maine was considered to be at a high level of community transmission. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Maine CDC recommend that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask in indoor, public settings at high and substantial community transmission levels.

A high level of transmission means that a county has recorded at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period. A substantial level is between 50 and 99 new cases per 100,000 residents.

For more than a month now, all or most of Maine’s 16 counties have had a high level of community transmission. The last time that a Maine county was below a high or substantial level for more than a day was in mid-August, when Sagadahoc County sustained a moderate level of community transmission for about a week and a half.

On the vaccination front, nearly 76% of all Mainers 12 years and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Eligible residents of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties are 69.2%, 63.6% and 65.2% fully vaccinated, respectively.

Advisory panels from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. CDC are expected to give their recommendations on vaccinations for 5 to 11-year-olds in the coming weeks.

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