SKOWHEGAN — The town’s fire chief said this week that the numbers of small-town emergency personnel continue to dwindle, and that the state’s new vaccine requirement for health care workers adds an unwelcome layer of stress.

As tensions grow throughout the state over the recent requirement that all Maine health care workers receive a COVID-19 vaccination or lose their job, Skowhegan’s Fire Chief Shawn Howard told the Board of Selectmen last week that because the department is licensed through Maine Emergency Medical Services, every member of his fire crew is obligated to get the vaccine.

“Unfortunately, we have to abide by these laws and we have to follow through with making sure that all of our employees are vaccinated,” Howard said. “This may mean that we lose some employees.”

Currently some members of his department are vaccinated and some are not, Howard said. When asked, he said that he was not comfortable discussing how many firefighters the department may lose to this mandate in a public forum.

“Please trust that I am working on it,” Howard told selectmen. “I will ensure adequate coverage for the citizens of Skowhegan.”

Gov. Janet Mills announced on Aug. 12 that Maine would join the list of states that require all health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread and hospitalizations soar. State officials reported 415 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and two additional deaths, marking the most cases reported in a single day since May 3.

The mandate applies to all hospital and nursing home staff, dentists, EMS personnel and other health care workers. They must receive their final dose by Sept. 17 in order to be considered fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.

Somerset County remains the county with the lowest vaccination numbers in the state. Only 57% of its population is fully vaccinated. Statewide, that number is approximately 71%.

Members of the public and selectmen suggested ways to get around the vaccine requirement. Chairman Todd Smith discussed a Maine municipality that voted to not follow the mandate and to make the vaccine voluntary for their town’s department.

Steve Govoni, a resident, said that “we have a mandate that is not legal constitutionally in the state.”

Selectman Harold Bigelow added his opinion about the vaccine and its chemical makeup, saying that “the media is pushing this and they have a lot of reason to.”

“There’s a lot of metals and questionable stuff,” Bigelow contended. “There’s so many chemicals” in COVID-19 shots, he said, and he felt the vaccines had been rushed.

Although other municipalities may have pushed back on the mandate, Skowhegan’s board “does not have the authority” to go against the state’s lawful requirement, Howard said.

“We fall under the law because we are a licensed facility, I have no way around that,” he said. “This is not an easy situation to be in. I’m carrying out my duties, I’ve taken an oath to abide by the law so that’s what I’m doing. My opinion does not matter. It is the law I am going to follow.”

Smith then suggested that the board consider dropping the licensing requirement to avoid losing firefighters because “we have an obligation to our town and to protect our citizens.”

“If that means that we drop the license to keep these people, then I would urge we (consider) that, so we don’t lose our fire department,” Smith said.

Howard assured the board that regardless of what happens by the Oct. 1 vaccine deadline, the fire department will provide coverage of the town. He pushed back against Smith’s suggestion to pull the licensing because “there’s a lot of negatives to just letting that license go.”

“Fire and EMS throughout the country and certainly in Maine, definitely here in central Maine, are already hemorrhaging badly,” Howard said. “Unfortunately doing what you’re saying and getting rid of that EMS license is going to also add to the problem on the other end.”

Selectmen Charles Robbins quizzed Howard on who would be liable if a town employee became sick or died from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports of deaths after vaccinations are rare. 363 million doses have been administered in the U.S. Almost 7,000 deaths have been reported among the vaccinated, but it is unlikely that the vaccine caused the preponderance of those deaths.

Howard countered by asking Robbins who would be liable if an unvaccinated firefighter infected another individual during a call.

“Are we then liable?” Howard said. “Unfortunately, there’s all kinds of things that are unanswered.”

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