LEWISTON — A federal team of clinicians began arriving Monday at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston to administer COVID-19 vaccines and free up hospital staff to focus on patient care, Gov. Janet Mills announced Tuesday, as COVID-19 patients continue to fill Maine’s hospital beds.

A total of four nurses and pharmacists contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will remain on-site through Jan. 27, according to a release from the Mills administration. Another three clinicians will go to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“Omicron is spreading rapidly and these clinicians will be doing important work to protect our communities when our health system is seeing significant demand for vaccine,” Central Maine Healthcare CEO Steve Littleson said in statement. Central Maine Healthcare is CMMC’s parent company.

Mills also announced Tuesday that she has activated an additional 169 members of the Maine National Guard to serve in nonclinical support roles at health care facilities across the state through the end of February. A list of sites will be released later this week.

“I wish we did not have to take this step, but the rise in hospitalizations — caused primarily by those who are not vaccinated — is stretching the capacity of our health care system thin, jeopardizing care for Maine people and putting increased strain on our already exhausted health care workers,” Mills said in a statement.

Maine National Guard members arrive at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston in December 2021. Gov. Janet  Mills said Tuesday that her administration will activate additional members to support hospitals throughout the state. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

There are more than 200 National Guard members deployed throughout the state on COVID response orders, according to Tuesday’s news release, and this is the second time in as many months that the Mills administration has activated additional members as COVID hospitalizations continue to break records.

Last month, 38 National Guard members were deployed to 10 facilities throughout the state, assisting primarily with opening “swing bed” units at hospitals and administering monoclonal antibodies. Of those deployed, 12 went to CMMC, and at least one member went to Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Rumford Hospital and Bridgton Hospital.

Their deployments are scheduled through Jan. 26.

Last month, Mills requested federal COVID surge response teams on behalf of CMMC and MaineMed, but due to resource constraints FEMA was only able to approve MaineMed’s request, according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell.

Since December, eight federal ambulance teams have been stationed at Maine hospitals, including CMMC and Franklin Memorial, to assist with nonemergency patient transfers. Those teams are also scheduled to leave at the end of this month.

HOSPITAL STAFFING CRISIS

The announcement comes amid the worst surge in COVID hospitalizations since the pandemic began. As of Tuesday, the number of COVID patients in Maine hospitals has been above 300 for 48 consecutive days. There have been more than 100 patients in an intensive care unit for 40 straight days.

This surge has at times forced some hospitals to temporarily reduce services to ensure staff members are available to care for the most critically ill patients.

On Monday, Franklin Memorial Hospital officials said it is temporarily closing most of its operating rooms to nonemergency and nonurgent procedures in response to Franklin County’s high infection rate and in preparation for an omicron-driven wave of new infections in the coming weeks.

Like most hospitals throughout the state, Franklin Memorial is experiencing staffing challenges, said Dr. Ross Isacke, chief medical officer at Franklin Community Health Network, some of which predate the pandemic and some of which are pandemic-driven.

With the omicron variant being so much more contagious than the original strain of the virus, the hospital is preparing for the possibility that a significant number of staff members may be out on any given day because they have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID, Isacke said.

St. Mary’s Health System, the parent organization to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, told employees Friday that it will allow some employees who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID but are asymptomatic or who have mild symptoms and in recovery to continue working in COVID units, spokesperson Steve Costello confirmed Tuesday.

“Due to the elevated number of COVID-19 cases on our facility and the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on our staff, we have deemed it necessary to declare that we are at ‘crisis’ level of staffing,” the letter to employees said.

“This change in guidelines will only be enacted when a work unit is truly in crisis status and has exhausted all other options for filling shifts with individuals who do not have potential work restrictions.”

On the same day, there were 33 COVID inpatients at St. Mary’s, an all-time high for the hospital. As of Tuesday, providers there had been caring for an average of 30 patients per day the past seven days.

CMMC also experienced a record-high number of COVID inpatients on Friday, with a total of 38, 12 of whom were in the ICU. As of Monday, CMMC had an average of 32 patients per day over the seven days ending Monday.

Costello said that on any given day, St. Mary’s is averaging 65 to 70 staff members who are out due to exposure or who have tested positive.

The policy follows guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on allowing health care workers who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID to continue working under certain circumstances.

The U.S. CDC issued the interim guidance last month to “address concerns about potential impacts on the health care system given the surge” of COVID infections, which are largely driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

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