Officials with Maine’s largest hospital system on Tuesday pleaded with the public to get vaccinated as hospitals and intensive care units fill with COVID-19 patients.
The fall surge in COVID-19 patients combined with health care workforce shortages is straining Maine’s hospital systems. Elective surgeries continue to be delayed so that hospitals can care for COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated.
Dr. Andrew Mueller, MaineHealth CEO, said the vaccine mandate imposed by Gov. Janet Mills – which goes into full effect on Oct. 29 – is not contributing to workforce shortages at MaineHealth and is helping keep staff from missing shifts because of exposure to the virus. The MaineHealth network is Maine’s largest and includes Maine Medical Center in Portland.
“It’s clear the vaccine mandate helps protect and preserve our workforce,” Mueller said. All health care workers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 29 to keep working. Mueller anticipates about 1.5 to 2 percent of MaineHealth’s workforce will resign or be fired because of the mandate. But a fully-vaccinated workforce means there will be far fewer employees who will be absent from work from falling ill with COVID-19.
COVID-19 patients are crowding out services for other patients, including elective surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, and cancer surgeries that can be safely delayed a few months. About one-third of all elective surgeries at Maine Medical Center are being delayed, hospital officials said, and there’s a backlog of 1,500 surgical procedures.
“It will get worse in terms of some of those delays,” said Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Med and seven other Maine hospitals. “There’s not an easy solution, or easy end in sight.”
The increase in COVID-19 hospitalized patients at Maine Medical Center and other MaineHealth hospitals is taking an emotional toll on health care workers.
“They’re caring for patients, particularly in the ICU, who are as sick as any patients we take care of in the ICU,” said Dr. Joel Botler, chief medical officer at Maine Med. “They have to look at these patients, look at their families knowing that if the (COVID-19 patients) had been vaccinated, this would not be the outcome. For our care team members, it is very, very difficult.”
Maine Med is currently caring for 32 COVID-19 patients, with six additional patients suspected of having the disease. Botler said the total patient count at Maine Med is 643 on Tuesday, straining the hospital’s capabilities.
Meanwhile, Maine on Tuesday reported 882 new cases of COVID-19 over a three-day period, and 25 additional deaths.
The death statistics reflect the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducting a periodic review of death certificates, with 19 of the 25 deaths attributed to the records review.
The 882 cases are the result of case counts from Saturday, Sunday and Monday, as the agency no longer reports cases on weekends.
The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 464 on Tuesday, compared to 527.9 a week ago and 520.7 a month ago.
Since the pandemic began, Maine has reported 101,849 cases of COVID-19, and 1,147 deaths.
Maine reported 215 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday, down from 223 on Monday, but higher than the 201 reported on Sunday. Hospitalizations peaked at 235 patients on Sept. 25, declined to 152 by Oct. 7, but have increased again during the past two weeks.
The overwhelming majority of those hospitalized have either been unvaccinated or are fully vaccinated but older with other serious health conditions, according to health officials.
On the vaccination from 909,948 Maine people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, representing 67.7 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population. The vaccination numbers have been on a slow but steady climb since the summer, but will likely see a significant bump soon if the Pfizer vaccine is approved for schoolchildren.
Federal regulators are on the verge of approving COVID-19 vaccines for ages 5-11, with a Food and Drug Administration advisory board set to meet Tuesday to potentially recommend the Pfizer vaccine, followed by a similar U.S. CDC advisory committee next week. If the CDC advisory committee gives the green light, federal regulators could approve the vaccine for use quickly.
That means the vaccine rollout for elementary-aged children could begin as soon as next week, setting the stage for a significant increase – possibly 5-7 percent – in the percentage of the state population that is immunized. About 100,000 schoolchildren would become eligible.
The higher the overall vaccination rate, the stronger likelihood that reductions in COVID-19 transmission will be long-lasting, public health experts have said. Also, school children, because they interact with large numbers of children and adults at school, can be vectors of the disease.
Maine is expected to offer the vaccine to newly-eligible schoolchildren at school-based clinics, pediatrician’s offices and drug stores, among other places.
This story will be updated.