Central Maine residents had their questions on the coronavirus pandemic answered in a virtual forum with area health and employment experts Wednesday.
Among the issues addressed were testing, rates of transmission, new strains of the disease, what hospitals are doing and employment questions. But first and foremost, health care officials stressed that a COVID-19 vaccine does not cost anything.
“The vaccine itself is free,” said Dr. James Jarvis, physician leader of incident command at Northern Light Health, which operates Inland hospital in Waterville. “If you have insurance or you have Medicare, then we would bill the insurance for the administration fee, but there are no out of pocket costs.”
According to estimates, more than 15.5% of Maine’s population has received a dose of the COVID vaccine, with approximately 7% of the population having doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Maine is the state with the 11th highest percentage of residents with at least one dose of the vaccine, which is being prioritized in Maine right now for residents age 70 and older because they have the highest risk of death.
The Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce put on the forum Wednesday in partnership with the Alfond Youth & Community Center, Central Maine Growth Council, Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and KV Connect.
The panel included Dr. Steve Diaz, chief medical officer, MaineGeneral Health; Northern Light’s Jarvis and Lisa Landry, human resources director at Redington-Fairview General Hospital.
Diaz spoke about testing, rates of transmission and best practices for staying safe.
Diaz said Kennebec County’s 19.62 per 10,000 people case rate is good, but still high. A low case rate is considered eight and below per 10,000 people, while moderate is 9-16. In January, it was 80, he said.
“We’re doing better now than in January, but if we saw these numbers in October, we’d be mortified,” Diaz said.
Expanded testing has helped keep the pandemic from getting worse this spring, Diaz said. He hopes that things will feel more normal by the fall.
“We have to keep the course on masking, social distancing and washing our hands,” Diaz said.
In response to a question about the safety of a vaccine, Diaz noted that all vaccines on the market right now are under Emergency Use Authorization. The more people who are vaccinated, the quicker herd immunity can be achieved.
Jarvis spoke about new trends and strains, what hospitals are doing and expanding telehealth options. Jarvis touched on COVID-19 variants, which he described as “tricky.”
The variant from the United Kingdom is more infectious than the strain that prevailed most of the year, but it does not cause a higher mortality rate, he said. Variants detected in South Africa and Brazil cause more severe diseases, but they have not taken hold in the United States.
Jarvis said health care facilities have not changed much with the new variants.
“We have been able to protect everyone so well, that we don’t feel these new variants need us to change our course,” Jarvis said.
But that doesn’t mean strict protocols are not in place. Visitations will remain limited. Jarvis recommended people do their regular health screenings and other health measures, whether they be in person or via telehealth.
“It is very safe to enter in our facilities,” Jarvis said. “We see almost no spread of our disease in our facilities. Almost all spread of disease happens in the community.”
Jarvis said there should be no concern about getting the vaccine if one has had the virus in the past.
Landry touched on employment issues individuals and businesses face including health screenings of employees and vaccination processes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, has released guidance for employers in the workplace.
People are advised to be aware of scams. Medical facilities would never ask for a social security or credit card number.
Specific to COVID-19, the guidance recommends employers have prevention plans in place in the workplace. It starts with masking, distancing and hand hygiene, officials said. Regular health screenings are helpful and vaccines are a possible next step. Redington-Fairview in Skowhegan uses an application to screen employees to see if they have had symptoms or exposure.
“If you have any documentation of employees being screened, you have to treat those as private health records,” Landry said. “You want to make sure that those policies are fair to your employees, and of course, are even across the board.”
Landry acknowledged that workplace accommodations are also important when dealing with the pandemic. She said it is important to account for employees who cannot, or choose not to, get vaccinated.
“Can you mandate vaccinations? The short answer is yes,” Landry said. “Should you do it? The short answer is maybe not. It’s very tricky legally when you start mandating vaccines.”
Landry suggested potential incentives, such as paying employees during the time they get a vaccine. She’s also heard of pay protection for employees who have a reaction to a vaccine.