LEWISTON — Nearly 50 members of the Maine National Guard arrived at area hospitals Thursday morning on COVID-19 response orders as the health care system statewide struggles under the pressure of surging infections and staffing shortages.

Gov. Janet Mills activated up to 169 members of the Guard last week to assist health care facilities across the state, including at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, Central Maine Medical Center, both in Lewiston, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway.

They joined the more than 200 members already on COVID response orders, some of whom have been deployed since late November.

Officials from St. Mary’s offered a warm welcome to the 12 members who arrived Thursday. The hospital, like many across the state, was faced with a crush of COVID hospitalizations over the past few weeks, while cases among staff grew as well.

Although all health care workers except those with medical exemptions are fully vaccinated, and those from St. Mary’s who tested positive are fully vaccinated and are experiencing mild or no symptoms, according to spokesperson Steve Costello, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that individuals who have tested positive isolate for at least five days.

But with the dozens of staff out due to exposure or a positive test on any given day, St. Mary’s informed employees earlier this month that it is prepared to go into “crisis staffing” mode should the situation warrant it. Under interim guidelines issued by the U.S. CDC in December, fully vaccinated and asymptomatic health care workers can forgo the isolation period. They can only work with COVID patients, however.

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The hospital has not yet gone into crisis staffing mode, and the members will help fill in the gaps left by these staffing shortages. Eight of them will stay at the Lewiston hospital while the other four will go across the street to d’Youville Pavillion, a long-term care facility within the St. Mary’s system.

This was the first time any of the members deployed to St. Mary’s had been called to serve in a hospital setting.

To prepare, each of them had to take an eight-hour training course to become a temporary certified nursing assistant. This allows them to perform in patient-facing settings as CNAs up to the point of administering medication.

“No one in this room has been activated yet, so we’re all new to this environment in this situation,” Lt. Melissa Willette of Oakland said.

“But I think part of your Army training is just to adapt and overcome and just support any mission that gets thrown your way. So while it’s not the norm for any of us here, I think we’re all prepared to take on what we have to do.”

Willette, who has been in the Guard for four years and is the officer-in-charge of the mission, grew up in Lewiston and said she and her husband only moved away recently. She got to know St. Mary’s when her grandparents lived at d’Youville Pavillion, a long-term care facility that’s a part of the St. Mary’s system.

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“It’s kind of come full circle for me,” she said of returning to the hospital in this capacity.

Most of the members are from the area, Willette said.

“I think it’s nice for them to be able to have that opportunity to help their local hospital,” she said.

Another local, Staff Sgt. Amanda Breton of Sabattus, said she was excited to “help out where we can” and to learn something new in the process.

This is Breton’s second humanitarian deployment in her 14 years in the Guard, her first being to Hurricane Irene-battered Vermont in 2011. She also spent a year on a combat mission in Bagram, Afghanistan. For her, serving in Afghanistan and serving in her local hospital aren’t that different.

“It’s all the same. Like, you’re assigned a task and we’ve got to complete that task to the best of our ability, just like going overseas,” she said. “It’s all just like this. We’re going into the unknown. I went into the unknown over there (in Afghanistan) terrified and came back and you learn from every experience you have.”

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Meanwhile at Central Maine Medical Center, 20 Guard members joined the roughly 15 members who have been deployed since mid-December. As with the previous deployment, these members will help set up post-acute care beds, or “swing” beds, Jennifer Bodger, Central Maine Healthcare’s system director of care management, told reporters outside the hospital Thursday morning.

Swing bed units have been critical for relieving the bottleneck of patients who are ready to be discharged but, due to a lack of open beds at long-term care facilities, have to wait days and sometimes weeks before they can leave the hospital.

Bodger said they hope to add eight beds to the six-bed unit. The extra beds make “a huge difference,” she said.

“Our post-acutes, you know, they’re closed (due) to COVID. Our (Emergency Department) is surging with COVID cases with the omicron variant,” she said. “And those eight beds are eight people from our community that would be waiting in an inpatient bed for access to additional physical therapy, occupational therapy and were able to provide that for them.”

Another five members will go to Rumford Community Home and Bolster Heights Residential Care in Auburn, which are long-term care facilities in the CMH network, where they will also be focused on opening up more beds.

Capt. Joseph White has been on COVID response orders since Dec. 13. Like many members of the National Guard, his civilian job is not in the medical field.

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“When they get here, it’s kind of overwhelming in the beginning,” he said. “But once they get their feet wet, they’re able to jump right in and help out the hospital staff.”

One of the most surprising aspects of the mission has also been one of the most “amazing,” he said. It’s not often that Guard members have the opportunity to work in their own communities and “help out your fellow Mainers.”

Sometimes that hits close to home, White said.

“Because when you come to the hospital, you don’t realize that, ‘Hey, I may be taking care of my next-door neighbor or my relative.’”


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