LITCHFIELD — Town officials have asked Gov. Janet Mills to reverse the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

In a letter to Mills, Litchfield officials expressed concern the requirement infringes on the philosophical and religious freedoms of health care workers and could lead to employee shortages in EMS agencies across the state.

Originally introduced in August, the mandate required all health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. It defined health care workers as anyone working for a hospital, multi-level health care facility, home health agency, nursing facility, residential care facility, state-licensed intermediate care facility, and EMS workers.

Earlier this month, Gov. Mills announced that the deadline would be extended to Oct. 29 in order to give health care workers more time to receive the vaccine. She also said that $146 million in state and federal funding would be provided to nursing facilities, residential care facilities, adult family care homes, and hospitals to help them handle workforce recruitment and retention amid the pandemic.

The packet sent to the governor includes a cover letter from Town Manager Kelly Weissenfels, written statements from Fire Chief Michael Sherman and Gary Parker, chairperson of the Litchfield Board of Selectmen, and a resolution signed and unanimously approved by the selectmen.

In his statement, Sherman said the department stood to lose about a quarter of its roster of 22 as a result of the rule. He said those crew members have ideological objections to the mandate.

The chief clarified that the town is opposed to the mandate itself, but not vaccines in general.

“These things often get painted as a bunch of anti-vaxxers,” Sherman said. “We’re talking about people that are intelligent, people that have had conversations with their doctors. We’re talking about people who give these things a lot of thought and have had numerous vaccines in the past. We’re not talking about a bunch of people opposed to vaccines. We’re opposing a mandate; we’re opposing a forced vaccination.”

Weissenfels shared similar sentiments about the crew in his cover letter to Gov. Janet Mills.

“These are people who willingly drop what they are doing at a moment’s notice to go to the aid of friends and neighbors,” the town manager wrote. “They understand personal sacrifice. For over a year they have operated safely amid the COVID-19 crisis. These are people who are generally in favor of vaccinations, and should not be dismissed.”

A resolution unanimously approved by the board of selectmen was also included in the packet, which stated that the board “urges reversion of the [mandate] and calls on the state to do better in planning and implementation of COVID-19 vaccine-related safety measures.”

As of Monday, a total of eight staff at Litchfield Fire & Rescue are unvaccinated. Of those eight, Sherman said two are planning to receive the vaccine prior to the deadline, and another has received information from his doctor that he is medically exempt. He said it is currently unclear if this exemption will be recognized under the rules of the mandate.

As for how the town will handle the potential loss, Weissenfels said Litchfield would likely increase mutual aid with providers in surrounding communities.

Sherman noted that some members of the department, while they may be opposed to the mandate, are still deciding to get the vaccine.

“They believe it’s more important to remain able to respond to calls and be a part of the department than fighting this,” he said. “That is occurring here. I think it’s important to note that people who are opposed to this are making the choice to go and get it, despite their opposition because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Sherman said he has no intention of going against the mandate or resigning in protest. Instead, he plans to follow the law while fighting to have it changed or revoked.

“Even though I strongly oppose this rule, in fact, I passionately oppose this rule, as Chief I have no option but compliance,” he wrote. “Therefore it is the position of this Chief to follow the law to the best of my ability and fight as hard as I can to change it.”

At one point Sherman and Weissenfels were considering a lawsuit against the state, but are no longer pursuing that.

Weissenfels said the town is no longer searching for an attorney after learning that a class-action lawsuit against the mandate, claiming that it violated religious freedom rights, was already moving forward.

The chief said guidance from organizations like the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, and the EMS board is that they should follow the mandate’s rules.

“Our town’s attorney advised that we follow the guidelines,” he said. “We have received no legal advice to do anything other than follow the guidelines.”

MMA Director Catherine Conlow said that while the organization doesn’t track requests and inquiries concerning the mandate, they have received several from Maine communities.

“If the questions are specific towards legal action against the mandate, we would refer them back to their counsel,” Conlow said.

Sherman said he has spoken with departments in other communities who are also opposed to the mandate. As with Litchfield, these departments also face the potential loss of employees.

“I’ve heard numbers similar to ours,” he said. “Three to four individuals is a pretty common number that these agencies stand to lose.”

Weissenfels said the town office has not received any calls from residents about the issue, but that they have received some responses on their Facebook page after posting about their opposition to the mandate.

“There were no overwhelming opinions in one direction or the other,” he said. “We have a lot of support for our volunteers, that seems to be consistent across the board.”

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