LEWISTON — Members of the Maine National Guard arrived at Central Maine Medical Center on Thursday to help ease the staffing shortages as the COVID-19 surge continues.

With their assistance, CMMC will open a swing bed unit, also known as a short-term rehabilitation program, Monday for patients who need noncritical care before leaving the hospital. The unit will care for a mix of people, including hospice patients, and will help open up beds for patients who need treatment.

Many of the 17 members, who come from communities across the state, volunteered for the role. They will be trained as nursing assistants, helping to check patients’ vitals, change beds, and assist the clinical staff with rehabilitation.

“A couple months ago, I was here myself, and I saw how short-handed they are here,” Master Sgt. Brian Jones of the Lewiston-Auburn area said. “I think it was a good thing for us to step up and help out . . . from what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced, it’s needed.”

The 16-bed wing previously housed orthopedic and neurosurgery patients, but was closed two months ago, Central Maine Healthcare CEO Dr. Steve Littleson said.

“Their presence here is like a great Christmas gift,” he said. “Our workforce is exhausted, and they’ve been fighting this pandemic since the very beginning, and as we all know, it’s only getting worse. And so, for these guardsmen and women to show up now, before the holidays when our team members are tired but still dedicated to the job is just not only a practical help, we’re literally going to open more beds because they’re here.”


Originally, hospital officials were told 12 members would arrive, but were delighted when five more showed up.

“The emotional lift that the rest of our team members are getting from their presence is really fantastic. It tells them that the rest of the community cares about them,” Littleson said.

Gov. Janet Mills activated the National Guard on Dec. 8 to help understaffed hospitals straining to care for a surge of mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Members of the Guard will additionally be assisting Central Maine Healthcare’s two hospitals in Bridgton and Rumford.

Central Maine Healthcare is the parent company to Central Maine Medical Center.

“This particular unit is going to be geared toward patients who are ready for discharge, but still need some additional nursing and rehabilitation for a couple of days, or maybe a week or two,” Littleson said.

“Those patients have been sitting in our hospital with no place to go because our long-term care facilities are also full and also suffering from workforce shortages,” he said. “This unit is really going to enable us to open up more beds, admit more patients, and keep caring for our community in ways that we really struggled, most recently.”


At times, patients must wait in the emergency department until a hospital bed opens, he added.

The Guard is expected to be deployed at least until the end of January, however Littleson said the hospital may still need help beyond that.

According to chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare, Dr. John Alexander, CMMC has between 60 to 100 vacant positions for clinical staff and another 200 to 300 vacant positions throughout the system.

CMMC expects to receive three nurses from the Veterans Administration next week to assist with COVID-19 care. The hospital’s request for a rapid response medical team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still pending.

“I think one of the hardest parts has been seeing some of the younger people who’ve come in and have developed COVID and then have more severe illness,” Alexander said. “That’s especially challenging for most of our caregivers because you don’t expect that to happen. They’re otherwise healthy people.”

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