AUBURN, ME—City officials are worried they could lose 14 or more employees in the Fire Department and dispatch center if they don't agree to receive COVID-19 vaccinations by mid-September.
Fire Chief Robert Chase said some unvaccinated firefighters are "very, very passionate" about the issue and likely won't get jabbed, a choice that would require their departure.
That will remove decades of experience from his force, he said, and leave his already stressed, short-handed department to cope with even more forced overtime since new hiring is so difficult.
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It's a problem increasingly recognized by providers across the state who worry they won't be able to keep workers or find new ones.
The state last week announced that personnel at emergency medical services, including training and dispatch centers, must be fully vaccinated if they want to work with patients after Oct. 1 — a move so unsettling that when the state panel overseeing EMS tried to meet online Tuesday, it had to postpone the session because it couldn't handle the crowd that sought to participate.
Auburn City Manager Phil Crowell said 14 people covered by the new rule have informally indicated they are not vaccinated. There may be more, he said.
Crowell said it's not clear whether they're willing to get one in time to meet the Oct. 1 deadline set by Gov. Janet Mills for health care and emergency medical services personnel in Maine.
"If they don't get vaccinated, they'll lose their jobs," City Councilor Stephen Milks said.
With the backing of the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Hospital Association and other major health care providers, Mills announced last week that Maine's health care workers need to get vaccinated to stay on the job. A large majority of them have already gotten the shots.
Auburn has about 66 employees in the Fire Department and 27 in the dispatch center, Crowell said. All of them are covered by Mills' mandate, he said, because they're licensed EMS providers.
Three of them have asked about their retirement options, Crowell said, and there may be others who would try to get jobs with fire departments or dispatch centers that aren't covered by the edict because they're not licensed for EMS.
If several of them quit, Chase said, it's going to make things difficult since hiring anyone new is unlikely until next spring.
The city is trying to fill four newly funded positions in the Fire Department at a time when firefighters are in increasingly short supply.
Sam Hurley, the state's EMS director, said it "makes sense" that emergency medical providers "should do everything in our power to protect the health and safety of ourselves, our families, our colleagues and our patients, including receiving the COVID-19 vaccine."
But it's apparent that not everyone in the EMS field agrees.
The Maine Emergency Medical Services board planned to hold an emergency meeting on the issue Tuesday, recognizing the frustration many feel about the mandate.
It had to postpone the session until Monday, though, when more than 200 people tried to participate online and exceeded the technical capacity for the session. Officials plan to fix the problem in time to allow for a 9 a.m. session Monday, with details for login on the EMS website.f
The draft rule the board plans to discuss would bar covered EMS personnel from direct patient care after Oct. 1 if they are not vaccinated.
Chase said he's a strong supporter of vaccinations, but he recognizes that firefighters take "incredibly deliberate measures" with personal protective equipment to make sure they neither expose themselves to COVID-19 nor risk spreading it to others.
He said the mandate won't make a difference. It creates substantial hardship for minimal gain, Chase said.
Crowell said he has "no idea" how many of Auburn's employees covered by the mandate have been or will be vaccinated in time. He said, though, the city will respect the choice made by its staff on whether to get the vaccine that experts say is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19.
"We're still in limbo about how it's going to be rolled out," Chase said. He hopes Monday's state board meeting will clarify some of the details.
Those who refuse a vaccine may not have a job with the city.
"We need to comply with the law," Crowell said.
He said city officials will check records to make sure workers covered by the new mandate have been vaccinated and discern which, if any, have not.
Workers who want to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 must receive their first dose of the Moderna vaccine this week or the Pfizer one next week, unless they can find some place offering the one-dose Johnson & Johnson version before mid-September. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require a second dose.
All of the vaccines, which are available for free in many locations, are not fully effective for a couple of weeks after the final dose.
If the vaccine requirement winds up costing the city staff, Crowell said, it will likely hurt morale among those who are still on the job because it will increase demands on their time.
That's especially difficult, he said, because public safety personnel are "already overburdened" trying to cope with numerous calls that involved COVID-19 cases. Chase said calls have been up 10% in each of the past two years.
If the department loses firefighters, Chase said, it will add "incredibly more stress" for those who remain, many forced to take on overtime they don't want, and could perhaps lead to reduced services.
Finding new firefighter recruits is becoming difficult.
The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit news organization in Hallowell, recently looked at the issue statewide and found that departments across Maine "are struggling to recruit and retain career, per diem and volunteer firefighters, leaving the dwindling numbers to handle a growing number of calls."
Many employers are seeing similar issues as an aging workforce and the pandemic slice into the number of available workers.
As a result, Crowell said, firefighters and staff covered by the mandate who don't want to get a vaccine won't have any trouble finding other places to work, including fire departments that are not EMS-licensed and thus not covered by Mills' requirement. Chase said that's likely to happen.
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