Staff Exposures to COVID-19 Dull Maine Hospitals’ Ability to Fight Spike in Critical Cases

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Staff shortages are limiting the ability of Maine hospitals to adjust to a wave of critically ill patients as authorities consider contingency plans that were not needed earlier in the pandemic.

The sudden surge in virus cases is hitting hospitals on two fronts: COVID-19-related hospitalizations here rose 62% over the past week and the number of patients requiring intensive care rose to 71 on Friday, equaling the highest total over a day, as community transmission leads healthcare workers to test positive or quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus.

Hospitals are now re-examining backup plans from the onset of the pandemic, when Maine maintained capacity by postponing elective procedures and did not have to use temporary hospitals like other states have. But staff shortages are limiting their options as Governor Janet Mills’ controversial mandate for vaccines for health workers is expected to take effect on October 1, though its effect on staff is murky.

“We are very close to being overwhelmed,” said Steve Michaud, executive director of the Maine Hospital Association on Friday. “I mean, it’s just the reality.”

Although the vaccination mandate for healthcare workers has raised concerns that some will leave the profession, hospital leaders say the biggest challenge right now is with workers who are out of time because they have contracted the virus. highly contagious or have been exposed to someone who has.

In the Brewer-based Northern Light Health system, which includes 10 hospitals, around 400 employees were short on time in August due to exposure to the virus or a positive test. At MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, 51 employees were out of work Friday because they had tested positive for COVID-19 or had been exposed in the community, according to a spokesperson. This figure was up from 34 last week and 29 two weeks ago.

The MaineGeneral also had to postpone all radiation oncology appointments on Thursday after five radiation therapists were called out of work, the same day as Augusta protested against the vaccination mandate for healthcare workers. A spokesperson for the hospital said employees did not cite the warrant as the reason for their absence, adding that the hospital expects employees “to never put patients’ health at risk. denying them care “.

About 80% of hospital workers were fully vaccinated by the end of July, before the vaccination mandate was announced, according to state data. More than 80% of eligible Mainers have received at least one dose, according to federal data, but about 417,000 remain unvaccinated, including about 160,000 children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Hospital leaders sounded the alarm over a potential shortage of intensive care beds at a rare joint press conference on Thursday, citing the increase in the number of cases, the high number of patients in the summer and staff shortages which have made it difficult for them to add beds to cope with the recent increase.

The number of available beds edged up to 39 on Friday, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Nirav Shah. The number of intensive care beds in the state is not fixed, as hospitals can convert some as needed, but their ability to do so is also dependent on staffing.

Fifteen of MaineGeneral’s 16 intensive care unit beds are currently occupied, while approximately 90% of the intensive care beds in Northern Light’s system are currently in use. The virus-hit Northern Light system facilities plan to cut back on non-essential procedures, such as surgeries, that could lead to hospitalizations in order to temporarily relieve the system, a spokesperson said.

Other options that could be considered over the coming week include transferring patients from urban hospitals to rural hospitals if the latter group has fewer patients, the hospital association’s Michaud said. A Maine Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a question Friday about surge plans.

When the virus first arrived in the spring of 2020, Maine scheduled temporary treatment centers in Bangor and Portland in anticipation of the increase in cases, although the state never ended up using them as the number of cases remained below dramatic projections. When infections rose again as winter approached, state hospitals again restricted elective surgeries.

While Maine’s largest hospitals have faced an increase in the number of cases, the smaller facilities in Bridgton, Rumford, Calais and Machias had no COVID-19 patients on Thursday. However, these hospitals also do not have intensive care beds.

“We talked about these things a year ago, but we didn’t think we would be back here,” Michaud said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.


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