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January 6, 2022

With COVID rates on rise in Maine, more hospital workers are calling out sick

FILE PHOTO Maine Medical Center, shown here, is the flagship of MaineHealth.

Sickening some workers and forcing others to quarantine, the spread of COVID-19 hobbled the state's two largest health care systems with staff absences on Wednesday.

Both MaineHealth and Northern Light Health reported a surge in the numbers of employees out sick or staying at home while awaiting COVID test results.

The worker absences came as the state broke the threshold of more than 150,000 confirmed or probable COVID cases recorded since the start of the pandemic, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care system, said it had 842 employees, or 3.8% of its 22,000 workers, out sick Wednesday with COVID-19 or quarantining at home.

The surge is likely caused by the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant in Maine and New Hampshire, MaineHealth said. Prior to the Christmas holiday, about 200 people per day were absent across the system because they had contracted or had been exposed to COVID-19.

At Northern Light, 493 employees, or 4.1% of 12,000 systemwide, were not working for similar reasons. Northern Light said the number of employees out sick represented an all-time high during the pandemic. 

Maine health care workers are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, indicating that the omicron variant is more likely to evade vaccines and cause illness. The omicron variant, however, has been less likely to cause as severe illness, hospitalization or death as the delta variant, officials said.

The spike in absences comes at a time when health care providers across the state are already challenged by near-record numbers of hospitalizations for COVID-19, pent-up demand for care postponed earlier in the pandemic, and an ongoing labor shortage across the health care industry.

“Keeping our workforce healthy has been critical from the beginning,” said Doug Sawyer, interim chief medical officer at MaineHealth. “We have been applying the science as fast as we have it. First, with education around social distancing, masking and hand hygiene. Later, with mandatory vaccines and encouraging boosters. And most recently, we’ve updated our care team quarantine procedures based on the best-available science and CDC guidelines to get our people back safely as soon as possible.”

Still, Sawyer said, health care workers at MaineHealth and elsewhere are exhausted, and the entire health care system is under tremendous stress.

“We need help from our community,” he said. 

MaineHealth set up booster vaccine clinics this week on Free Street in Portland and at other facilities across its system. Information about MaineHealth’s vaccination clinics can be found at

Providers are also concerned that people are showing up at emergency departments, urgent care centers and walk-in clinics seeking confirmation of at-home COVID tests. Experts say such confirmations are unnecessary and could further spread the virus.

“At-home antigen tests are reliable if they're positive and you have symptoms,” said Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer. “There is no need to have a confirmatory PCR test before you begin following CDC guidelines for isolation.”

Mills noted that emergency departments, walk-in clinics and urgent care centers should be used for medically appropriate needs. The only time anyone who has tested positive should leave isolation is to seek necessary or emergency medical care. 

Community members who have tested positive at home should contact their primary care providers to determine if follow-up care is necessary. Anyone showing any of these signs should seek emergency medical care immediately: trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake or bluish lips or face.

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