Aug. 23—After hearing hours of complaints Monday about a state edict that requires health care workers and emergency medical personnel get vaccinated for COVID-19 before October, a state panel agreed to narrow the mandate's scope and give some staff extra time to comply.
The Maine Board of Emergency Services said in its new rule that it will give people licensed by EMS an extra month to get the COVID-19 shots and it won't require the shots for dispatchers or students who don't work directly with patients.
The move doesn't erase the earlier mandate by Gov. Janet Mills but without the EMS board's backing for a broader, quicker application of its terms, it's not obvious who would enforce the stricter terms she initially announced.
Joseph Kellner, the board member who pushed for the revisions, said the EMS rule offers "a nice balance" between pushing for more vaccinations and taking heed of warnings from providers across the state that the mandate could create an exodus of experienced personnel who would rather give up their jobs than obey an edict they oppose.
With fire and ambulance departments already burned-out and short-staffed across Maine, officials warned the board Monday that the vaccine mandate for emergency medical workers will make it difficult to fulfill their duties.
"We have members who will walk," said Chris Thomson, president of Local 740 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. He said the Portland personnel he represents are already stressed-out and struggling. The prospect of losing colleagues who don't want vaccinations, he said, leaves them worried about how they'll fulfill their mission to protect the public.
"This is a dynamic issue that people are passionate about," said Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety. He said he wished there could have been more time for a rollout of the new mandate.
Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler said he's already had one career firefighter resign because of the mandate. He said he is especially concerned that nearby volunteer departments will see "a significant reduction in service" as personnel quit before the October deadline for them to be fully vaccinated.
Deputy Fire Chief Cody Fenderson in Fort Fairfield said he anticipates his department will lose enough people that some calls for service will go unanswered.
Wells Fire Chief Mark Dupuis said if the mandate isn't changed, he will lose four of 12 full-time fighters, including two of only four who have more than two years of experience.
"This is dangerous," Dupuis said, and will pose "a significant blow" to both his department and his community.
Yarmouth Fire Chief Mike Robitaille said 20% of his full-time staff will resign, which he called "a hit for a small organization."
Robert Chase, Auburn's fire chief, called the mandate an "incredible risk" to departments across Maine and will likely cause problems "for years and decades to come."
John Cummings, an emergency medical technician in Aroostook County, said half the ambulance drivers in the county will quit if the mandate is enforced.
But public health advocates said the mandate will help slow the spread of the deadly virus.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the EMS services are "a core piece of the healthcare community" and had to be included in the mandate to protect the workers, the patients they serve and the overall force that serves as the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
Dr. John Martel, a board member who favored the new EMS rule, said that officials needed to endorse vaccines considering "the gravity of the situation" facing Maine. He said there's been "a very, very large rise in cases" in recent weeks that is "creating a near paralysis of the hospital system" in the state.
"Masking is not enough," said another board member, Heidi Cote, a registered nurse in Portland. The problem, she said, is that the public "has forgotten we're still dealing with a pandemic."
At least 750 people joined a Zoom call Monday by the board to hear testimony about Mills' mandate, with many criticizing it for denying workers the right to choose for themselves whether to get jabbed. Even more expressed concern that the loss of EMS personnel will gut some departments, especially small, rural ones.
Mike Larson, chief of Three Rivers Ambulance Services in Milo, said he's going to lose half his staff to the mandate.
Larson said that with the science surrounding COVID-19 "changing every day," it's hard to know what to trust or believe.
"I kind of feel like we're pushing rope here," Larson said.
Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock said that each of his 25 employees is vaccinated but he can see the ill effect the rule will have statewide — and for his own department as it seeks to hire in the future.
Whytock warned that Maine will be "in a world of hurt" when many staff members leave departments rather than get the required shots.
"It's just going to get worse and worse and worse," warned Samantha Small, a paramedic in Washington County.
"Some calls are just not going to get answered," said Scott Susi, a board member from Caribou.
Not everybody agreed, though.
Phil Selberg, deputy fire chief at South Portland Fire Department, spoke in favor of the mandate.
"This is about being part of a bigger team," Selberg said.
Bangor Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health told the board that officials had to act quickly to get healthcare workers vaccinated because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus' delta variant.
He said the vaccines that are available are "extremely effective" and "incredibly safe" for the people who get them. The benefits of getting the shot, Jarvis said, are "far greater than the risk," which are minimal.
Sabattus Fire Chief Troy Cailler said his department does not support the mandate. He asked what consequences might follow if an organization disobeyed the edict.
Cailler also wondered if personnel who are forced to vaccinate could ask patients if they've done so as well. If they haven't, he asked, "are we able to refuse treatment to them?"
Timothy Beals, a paramedic from Winslow who serves on the EMS board, said he is concerned about what will happen because of the mandate.
"I feel like it's a roll of the dice" on whether it will convince more people to get vaccinated, which would help, or push more people out of occupations the state needs.
"I am really confused about what to do," said Rich Kindelan, an Old Orchard Beach paramedic. He said he hasn't seen anything to indicate there's a problem with EMS workers spreading the disease.
The new rule gives EMS licensees until Oct. 29 to be fully vaccinated, a month more than Mills allowed, and it removes the dispatchers and some students from the list of those covered by its terms. Broadly, the panel said that only EMS personnel who deal with patients for 15 minutes or more and come within 6 feet of them will need to be vaccinated.
That means that the board's new emergency rule doesn't match the terms imposed by the governor in her Aug. 12 emergency declaration.
As a practical matter, it appears it would be a complicated legal step for the state Department of Health and Human Services to bring action against people with EMS licenses, which effectively means that the board's move leaves it in the driver's seat, for the moment at least, on enforcement issues.
Still, as Susi put it, "This is as clear as mud."
New permanent rules are likely to come within a few months.