Patty Wight / Maine public radio
One recent morning, Waldoboro EMS’s Jerrad Dinsmore and Kevin LeCaptain drove their ambulance to a remote seaside home to take a coagulation test on a woman in her 90s.
They told the woman, who was wrapped in blankets to keep herself warm, that they would contact her doctor with the result.
“Is there anything else we can do?” asked Dinsmore.
“No,” she said, “I’m done.”
This wellness check, which took about 10 minutes, is one of the tasks Dinsmore and LeCaptain perform in addition to the emergency calls they respond to as Waldoboro EMS personnel. Rescue workers have been busier than ever this year as people who delayed treatment during the pandemic got sicker.
But there is only a limited workforce to meet demand. Dinsmore and LeCaptain work for Waldoboro more than 20 hours a week, in addition to their full-time ambulance jobs in other cities. In Maine, it is common for rescue workers to work for multiple departments as most rescue workers need the help – and Waldoboro may need more soon.
The department has already lost an EMS employee who quit due to Maine’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers and could lose another two.
The stress of filling these positions keeps city manager Julie Keizer awake at night.
“So we are a 24-hour service,” explains Keizer. “If I lose three people who put 40 or more hours into it, that’s 120 hours that I can’t cover. In Lincoln County we already have a stressed system.”
The labor shortage almost forced Waldoboro to shut down the ambulance service for a weekend. Keizer says she is in favor of vaccinations, but believes Maine’s decision to hire her puts the functionality of some emergency services at risk.
Maine is one of 10 states where healthcare workers must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or risk losing their jobs. Along with Oregon, Washington State, and Washington, DC, it also specifically includes the paramedics and paramedics responding to emergency calls in this mandate. Some ambulance crews say this makes an ongoing personnel crisis worse.
Two hundred miles north of Waldoboro, near the Canadian border, is Fort Fairfield, a small town of 3,200 people. Deputy Fire Chief Cody Fenderson explains that after the mandate was granted in mid-August, two workers were vaccinated but eight stopped.
“That was extremely frustrating,” says Fenderson.
Now there are only five full-time employees left at Fort Fairfield to fill 10 spots. Your list of day workers all have full-time positions elsewhere, many in other EMS departments that are also facing bottlenecks.
“You know, everyone who drives an ambulance suffers,” says Fenderson. “It’s tough. I’m not sure what we’re going to do and I don’t know what the answer is.”
Both nationally and in Maine, personnel problems plagued the EMS system for years. It is intense work that requires a lot of training and offers low pay. In Maine’s largest city, Portland, the urban first responder workforce consists of approximately 200 people and 8 are expected to quit because of the vaccine mandate, according to Firefighters Union President Chris Thomson.
That may not seem like a significant loss, but Thomson explains that these are full-time positions and that those positions will need to be filled by other employees who are already exhausted from the pandemic and who are working overtime.
“You know, the union is encouraging people to get their vaccine. I personally got the vaccine. And we’re not denying how serious the pandemic is, ”says Thomson. “But the firefighters and the nurses have been doing this for a year and a half, and I think we did it safely. And I think the only thing that really threats public health is the lack of staff.”
Thomson believes that unvaccinated employees should be allowed to stay on the job because they are experts in infection control and wear personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.
Patty Wight / Maine public radio
However, Maine Public Safety Officer Mike Sauschuck says EMS departments also risk a staff shortage when workers are exposed to COVID and need to isolate or quarantine.
“Win-win scenarios are often discussed, but rarely realized,” he says. “So sure, you may have a situation where community staffing concerns are a reality. But for us, we believe the wider impact and the safer effect on our system is vaccination.”
Some EMS departments in Maine have fulfilled the mandate in full and no one has quit. Andrew Turcotte, EMS chief fire officer and director for the city of Westbrook, says all 70 of his employees are now vaccinated. He sees the new mandate no differently than compulsory vaccination for school attendance or entry into the health care system.
“I think we all not only have a social responsibility, but also a moral one,” says Turcotte. “We made a decision to move into the health sector and with that come responsibilities and accountabilities. That includes making sure you are vaccinated.”
Nationwide figures released on Wednesday show that nearly 97% of emergency responders in Maine have been vaccinated. However, this differs depending on the county: The rural counties of Piscataquis and Franklin stated that 18% and 10% of EMS employees, respectively, were still unvaccinated in mid-October.
Not all EMS departments have reported their vaccination rates to the state. Waldoboro is in Lincoln County, where only 8 of the 12 departments reported their rates. Among these 8, the non-compliance rate was only 1.6%.
But in small departments like Waldoboro, losing a single employee can be a huge logistical problem. In the last few months Richard Lash, the EMS director at Waldoboro, has started working 120 hours a week to fill the vacancies. He is 65 and wants to retire next year.
“I told my city manager that we would do our best. But I can’t go on working 120 hours a week to fill the shifts, “says Lash.” I’m getting old. And I just can’t keep doing that. ”
This story was made as part of MediaFrolic’s health reporting partnership with Maine Public Radio and Kaiser health news (KHN).