Few health workers actually quitting over vaccine mandate despite ongoing protests

Employment data shows that very few Maine health care workers have quit their jobs over the recent statewide COVID vaccine mandate, despite a number of lawsuits and ongoing protests organized by anti-vaccine activists, suggesting that opponents of the mandate represent a vocal minority in Maine.

Statewide anti-vaccine mandate protests have been happening since Gov. Janet Mills announced a COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers on August 12, which will be enforced starting October 29. Health care providers already require their workers to be vaccinated against measles, Hepatitis B and other infectious diseases. Mills’ mandate adds the COVID vaccine to that list.

During a September 1 news conference, Northern Light, the second-largest health care provider in Maine, said that “only 20 staff, out of more than 10,000, left their jobs over Mills’ healthcare worker vaccine mandate.”

The Northern Light representative added that “many more staff workers have had to leave their jobs after catching COVID and unvaccinated workers are more susceptible to that outcome.” Eighty-eight percent of Northern Light’s staff is currently vaccinated.

Maine Health, the largest in-state health care provider, shared similar employment information. So far only 0.19% of their workforce has quit in protest.

“Over recent weeks, we have had 45 people out of our care team of 23,000 resign and cite the vaccination requirement as among the reasons for their doing so,” said John Porter, Maine Health’s Associate Vice President of System Communications and Public Affairs.

On Monday, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a record 214 individuals were currently hospitalized with COVID in Maine, the highest number since the pandemic began.

However, these statistics haven’t deterred the fringe anti-mandate movement in Maine. On September 11, Republican state Reps. Shelley Rudnicki (District 108), Dick Campbell (District 130) and Mike Perkins (District 77) all spoke at a rally outside the State Capitol Building in Augusta, denouncing COVID vaccine mandates.

“Republicans have submitted bill after bill to stop the government mandates only to have Democrats kill those bills in the process. Like LD798, which would have banned the vaccine mandate for five years… They’re killing your God-given rights,” Rep. Rudnicki said during the rally. “And now they’re coming for your jobs. Thank God there are still freedom-loving Mainers to stand up and speak out. Stand up for your freedoms!”

The anti-mandate push from Republican lawmakers is happening in states across the country. In Florida, Gov. Ron Desantis has barred mask and vaccine mandates at schools, while threatening to fine officials who rebuke the order. Desantis’ anti-mandate efforts come despite the fact that his state has the highest COVID case, hospitalization and death rates in the country.

Observers say that politicians are fomenting anger around the mandates to piggyback on energy from the anti-vaccine movement, which is based largely on pseudoscience and spread on social media.

“Republicans are cynically mobilizing the energy of the anti-vaccine movement for their own political benefit,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes said in a recent segment. “Any Republican that is too vocal about their support for vaccines risks backlash from the hardline fringes of their party. To square that circle, they mostly stay silent, occasionally giving support for the vaccine, but also standing up against vaccine mandates— ‘I support the vaccine, but not mandates.’ They get to have their cake and eat it too.”

There is a similar conflation of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine activism in Maine. Just last month, state Rep. Heidi Sampson used Mills’ health care worker vaccine mandate to invoke comparisons to human experimentation in Nazi Germany death camps.

“Do I need to remind you of the late 1930s and into the 40s in Germany? And the experiments with Josef Mengele,” Sampson said in August, referring to the Nazi doctor who performed deadly medical experiments on Jewish people. “What was it? A shot. And these were crimes against humanity. And what came out of that? The Nuremberg Code. The Nuremberg Trial. Informed consent is at the top and violating that is punishable by death.”

In response to Sampson’s remarks, several Democratic lawmakers drafted a letter calling for her resignation. Sampson was also denounced by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

“These hate-filled comments were a dog whistle to impassioned and misguided supporters to consider the governor not merely a political opponent but a war criminal,” Democratic state Senator Joe Baldacci wrote in the letter, which was signed by more than a dozen other state legislators. “At a minimum, [Sampson] needs to make a public apology and acknowledge the impact, whether intended or not intended, that this has had in a negative way.” 

To date, Sampson has not resigned or made a public apology for the comments. 

Despite the apparent low number of health care workers leaving the profession, there is no indication that the anti-mandate movement in Maine will let up anytime soon. The Alliance Against Healthcare Mandates, an anti-vaccine group led by former nurse Emily Grace Nixon, has raised a legal fund with over $11,000 committed to representing health care workers who quit their jobs. 

The group is also using a portion of the funds to sue the Mills administration over the health care worker mandate, which mirrors other unsuccessful lawsuit attempts.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jon Levy heard oral arguments in a separate suit filed by a religious group on behalf of an Orrington church, which requested a preliminary injunction prohibiting the mandate from taking effect on Oct. 1. According to the Bangor Daily News, during the hearing, Levy “expressed concern that granting the injunction would overturn a 2019 law that ended religious and philosophical exemptions for all vaccines required for school children as well as other vaccination requirements for health care workers.”

Photo: Health care workers, Republican state lawmakers and other critics of the COVID vaccine mandate rallied outside the State Capitol in Augusta on Sept. 11, 2021. | Nathan Bernard

About Nathan Bernard

Avatar photoNathan Bernard is a freelance writer and reporter living in Maine. His local stories have been featured in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, The Intercept, Business Insider, AV Club, Salon and CBS News.

Sign up for Beacon newsletters

Our newsletter, sent each evening, curates the day's most important stories from newsrooms around Maine.