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What Does the Covid-19 Vaccine Mandate Mean for EMS Workers?

By Emma Campbell

Maine EMS workers react to the looming deadline to be vaccinated against Covid-19

Portland’s fire department will be one of many losing unvaccinated employees at the end of
this month. Portland (Maine)

Fire Department Photo by The Fire Department.

PORTLAND – By October 29 all Maine healthcare workers must be fully vaccinated against
Covid-19 or face termination. The vaccine mandate comes after the early August decision
from the Mills Administration. And while many are in compliance, the mandate was met with immediate concern from Maine EMS workers, confused as to why they were included as healthcare workers. Since the mandate was announced, EMS workers have been vocal about their opposition. In late August, an EMS emergency board meeting allowed hundreds of individuals to speak in opposition of the mandate, voicing concerns of an already understaffed and burnt out workforce, some even declaring the mandate “tyrannical.” “EMTs are meant to serve the public, and part of serving the public is being vaccinated to protect them,” said South Portland firefighter and EMT Jason Perry. “If you get contaminated in your first call, you go through the rest of the day contaminating everyone else.”

Perry has served the South Portland fire department for 20 years, and for the 12 years Prior to that was a combat medic in the military. A self proclaimed “science guy,” Perry is a strong supporter of the mandate. Perry said several of his coworkers were hesitant to get vaccinated, but reluctantly did in order to keep their jobs. One coworker still has yet to be vaccinated with no intention to, because “their pastor told them not to,” Perry said. Perry discussed the mandate with coworkers on the fence about getting vaccinated, in hopes of hearing their reasoning for the decision. When asking one about their sources for their research regarding vaccination, they replied “Oh well it’s just from living and experiencing.”

Perry believes misinformation spread through social media has been a reason for vaccine hesitancy. “I don’t think it has anything to do with facts, it’s strictly an ideological stance at this point,” Perry said.

According to the Maine CDC, 99 percent of Portland’s residents are vaccinated, making it amongst the highest vaccinated towns in Maine. Portland’s fire department is the largest in the state, with 220 members. Portland’s fire chief Keith Gautreau says that after the announcement of the mandate, the Portland fire department went from about 20 unvaccinated employees to 8 in the span of two weeks. Gautreau was initially surprised at the mandate, but said he recognizes that his employees have the choice to resign or be terminated, just as they have the choice to get vaccinated. “From this mandate, we lost 8 employees,” said Gautreau. “With 220 members, losing 8 isn’t as impactful as it is in smaller towns.

One of those smaller towns is Lebanon. According to the Maine CDC 60 percent of Lebanon’s residents are vaccinated, making it one of the lowest vaccinated in Maine. Lebanon fire chief Kurk Flynn is “not happy” with the mandate. Flynn has a much smaller staff than Portland, with 25 members and two departing because of the mandate. One is one of his two paramedics, who will be leaving to work in New Hampshire where there is no Covid-19 vaccine mandate. Flynn initially considered keeping these employees on board, but learned he would lose accreditation with the Maine EMS board. “The government shouldn’t be telling us what to do with our bodies,” said Flynn. “I disagree with making someone take a shot.” From a professional standpoint, Flynn understands why his frontline workers are drafted with the rest of Maine’s healthcare workers, but finds it frustrating to enforce the mandate without any choice in it. “I have workers working more than they’re supposed to, but there’s no choice,” said Flynn. “There’s going to be a massive burnout.”

“You think about it when Covid first hit, all you saw on the news were the frontline workers and how they’re heroes,” said Flynn. “Now, these heroes are the ones being told thank you for doing that, but if you don’t get the shot you can’t do it anymore. I don’t think that’s the right way to treat your workers.”

Flynn recently recovered from a case of Covid-19 himself despite being fully vaccinated, and doubts the vaccines efficacy in comparison to his unvaccinated employees who have been exposed to Covid-19 routinely during the past year. While some refuse to get the vaccine, they are outliers. According to Sam Hurley, the executive director of the board of EMS for Maine, approximately 95 percent of Maine EMS workers are fully vaccinated. Hurley supports the mandate as EMS workers potentially have more exposure than some hospital workers, entering homes with other sick individuals and routinely seeing “the sickest of the sick.”

Maine utilizes regionalized healthcare systems, and EMS workers often transport sick individuals from rural areas to hospitals. “EMS is a critical part of our healthcare system, and they are healthcare workers through and through,” said Hurley. “The science has shown it’s our best method to protect patients and staff from Covid-19, so why wouldn’t we
use the best thing we have?”

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