MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care provider, will fire employees who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1, its spokesman said Thursday.

Asked what will happen if a MaineHealth employee is not fully vaccinated by the Oct. 1 deadline set by the state, spokesman John Porter confirmed in an interview that “they will be terminated.”

State officials last week issued a mandate requiring all health care workers in the state to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. The order issued by Gov. Janet Mills applies to hospital and nursing home staff, dentists, EMS personnel and other health care workers – about 150,000 workers in all. Only exemptions for medical reasons are allowed.

A few days after the order was issued, about 300 people gathered near Maine Medical Center in Portland to protest the new mandate, although it wasn’t clear how many were health care workers.

According to the most recent data available from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of hospital staff in Maine are fully vaccinated and 86 percent of ambulatory surgical center staff have gotten both doses. The rate drops, however, to 75 percent for assisted-living centers, 73 percent for nursing homes and 68 percent for staff at intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Mills’ mandate suggested that employees who don’t comply could be fired, but Porter’s statement is the first explicit confirmation that an employer plans to follow through on terminating non-vaccinated workers.

National Nurses United, the union that represents about 2,000 nurses at Maine Medical Center, did not return a message Thursday night seeking an interview about Maine Health’s decision to terminate employees who don’t comply with the mandate.

Northern Light Health, the state’s second-largest health care provider, said Thursday that it, too, plans to fire workers who refuse to get vaccinated, although its process might be a little more drawn out, spokesman Ed Gilman said.

First, Gilman said, a worker who isn’t vaccinated by Oct. 1 will be removed from the work schedule and will then be required to meet with human resources officials to discuss next steps.

“After being removed from the schedule, we will allow a reconsideration period for employees to change their mind, before we end their employment,” he said. “We are trying to do everything that we can to encourage staff to meet the requirements of the law, and that will continue to be our focus.”

Although MaineHealth was the first hospital operator to say that it will fire unvaccinated employees, all the hospitals in the state are coming to the realization that they will have to take that step, Steve Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said.

Firing is “the logical end point” for those who refuse to get vaccinated, Michaud said, but it comes at a time when hospitals “are in the middle of a pretty significant labor shortage.”

He said hospitals are under pressure because of rising admissions for COVID and non-COVID reasons. With no one sure how many health care workers might refuse to get vaccinated, worker scheduling is an even bigger headache than normal.

“We just don’t know” how many workers will quit or face firing, he said. “It’s a real dilemma for our members – how do you plan? It’s going to be a rocky few months here.”

Other health care organizations are wrestling with the question as well.

“Our members are still working through policies and procedures as the mandate was recently announced,” said Angela Westhoff, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Health Care Association.

The organization and its members – about 200 Maine nursing homes and assisted-living centers – are waiting for more details on the mandate from the state, Westhoff said.

“At this point there are more questions than answers,” she said.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston did not return a message Thursday night seeking an interview about how it plans to handle employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

Porter said MaineHealth officials have heard concerns about the mandate from some employees, although none has told hospital officials that they plan to leave because of it.

During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Northern Light Health’s chief human resources officer, Paul Bolin, said a few employees have said they plan to leave over the vaccine requirement but didn’t provide an exact number. He said many others threatened to leave but have since changed their minds.

“I think it’s a very personal decision for many employees who are struggling with that the decision,” he said. “We strongly encourage anyone who has questions or concerns to discuss those with us and hopefully we can resolve them.”

Most of the major health care organizations and associations, including MaineHealth, have supported the requirement as necessary to keeping patients safe.

Other states have begun adopting similar mandates, including Rhode Island, which announced this week that all employees of state-licensed health care facilities and providers will be required to get vaccinated. Those who don’t comply could face financial penalties and/or the suspension or revocation of their license.

That penalty also could apply in Maine. The state is relying on employers to enforce the mandate, but some could be subject to citations by the Division of Licensing and Certification for non-compliance, as well as other enforcement action, according to information provided by the Mills administration.

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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