A long developing worker shortage, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic that is now in its 20th month, is taxing the state’s health care system.

MaineHealth Chief Executive Officer Andy Mueller said the workforce shortage is creating significant challenges for hospitals. MaineHealth is the parent corporation of Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital.

MaineHealth officials held a news conference via Zoom on Tuesday, Oct. 26.

Across the MaineHealth system, about 10 percent of jobs are vacant. Mueller noted the workforce shortage is not new and has been developing over the years as baby boomers retire, and fewer people enter the nursing profession.

This shortage has worsened during the pandemic as employees work in difficult conditions.

Mueller said Maine Medical Center is seeing more COVID-19 patients than it has since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

“On top of that is an unprecedented demand for health care services,” the chief executive officer said. He said this was the result of some people having held off on seeking care coupled with the cumulative aging of the region’s population.

The loss of health care workers because of their refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is a small part of the workforce shortage. He said 1.5 to 2 percent of the MaineHealth workforce may leave because of the vaccination mandate.

At Coastal Healthcare Alliance, only nine employees have refused so far to be vaccinated. Friday is the deadline for health care workers to be vaccinated or be fired. The state has mandated that healthcare workers be vaccinated. There are about 2,100 employees with Coastal Healthcare. Coastal Healthcare includes PBMC and Waldo County General Hospital and their associated operations.

Mueller said the vast majority of patients being hospitalized with COVID-19 are un-vaccinated. He said the virus will continue to spread through the unvaccinated population which will continue to strain the health care system.

“It’s a horrible disease that is so preventable and avoidable,” he said.

Dr. Mark Fourre, the president and chief executive officer of Coastal Healthcare Alliance (which includes Pen Bay and Waldo County General) said some services have had to be curtailed because of the shortage of workers and the added demand for care. He said one example was shifting staff from cardiac rehabilitation to help in other departments such as medical/surgical and the emergency departments.

Non-urgent procedures, such as knee replacements, are being cut back. He said that while that is a relatively safe thing to delay, he realizes how difficult it is for those patients who are in need of the procedures.

“We are deploying the resources most effectively to best serve the community,” Dr. Fourre said.

Pen Bay also announced this week that it will reduce its outpatient laboratory hours starting Nov. 1. The PBMC lab will be open from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. The lab is closed on Sundays. The changes are temporary and will not impact inpatient care. PBMC expects to return to expanded hours of operation as soon as possible.

Dr. Joan Boomsma, the chief medical officer for Maine Medical Center, said the challenges facing the health care system is the “perfect storm.”