SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Ten states require health care workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs. In a handful of those states, like Maine, the EMTs and paramedics who respond to 911 calls are explicitly included in that mandate. As Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight reports, some ambulance crews say that's making an ongoing staffing crisis worse.
PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: In the rural coastal town of Waldoboro, the emergency medical services department has been busier than ever this year. EMS workers say people have been delaying care because of the pandemic and getting sicker. And they also need to do wellness checks on older adults.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, you're good.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi.
WIGHT: On a recent morning, two crew members stop by a secluded house near the ocean to measure the clotting levels of a woman in her 90s.
JERRAD DINSMORE: I'm Jerrad (ph).
KEVIN LECAPTAIN: Jerrad and...
DINSMORE: You remember me. How you doing today?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.
WIGHT: Jerrad Dinsmore and Kevin LeCaptain work for Waldoboro on top of full-time EMS jobs in other towns. It's common in Maine for EMS staffers to work for multiple departments, which are all looking for help. And Waldoboro EMS may soon need even more help. It already lost one worker who quit because of the state vaccine mandate and could lose another two. It keeps town manager Julie Keizer up at night.
JULIE KEIZER: So we're a 24-hour service. If I lose three people who were putting in 40 hours or over, that's 120 hours I can't cover. In Lincoln County, we already have a stressed system.
WIGHT: That stress was evident recently when Waldoboro almost had to shut down service for a weekend due to lack of staff. Keizer says she supports vaccination but believes Maine's mandate threatens the ability for some departments to function. About 200 miles north in Fort Fairfield, deputy fire chief Cody Fenderson says two workers got vaccinated after the mandate was issued, but eight quit.
CODY FENDERSON: You know, anybody that does ambulances is suffering. It's tough. And I'm not sure what we're going to do, and I don't know what the answer is.
WIGHT: Staffing issues have plagued the EMS system for years. It's intense work that takes a lot of training and offers low pay. Chris Thomson is the firefighters union president in Portland. He expects just a handful to quit over this, but that means added stress and overtime for everyone else. He says unvaccinated staff should be allowed to work because they're experts in infection prevention and wear PPE.
CHRIS THOMSON: The union encourages people to get their vaccine. I personally got my vaccine, and we're not in denial of how serious the pandemic is. But the firefighters and the nurses have been doing this, you know, for a year and a half. And I think that we've done it safely. And I think the only thing that really threatens the health of the public is short staffing.
WIGHT: Mike Sauschuck is Maine's commissioner of public safety. He points out departments already lose staff when workers get COVID and have to isolate.
MIKE SAUSCHUCK: Win-win scenarios are often talked about, but seldom realized. So sure, you may have a situation where staffing concerns are a reality in communities. But for us, we do believe that the broader impact, the safer impact on our system is through vaccinations.
WIGHT: Some EMS departments have complied fully with the mandate with no one quitting. Andrew Turcotte is fire chief and director of EMS for the City of Westbrook, where all 70 of his staff are now vaccinated.
ANDREW TURCOTTE: We chose to get into the health care field, and with that comes responsibilities and accountabilities. That includes ensuring that you're vaccinated.
WIGHT: But as enforcement of the mandate looms at the end of October, towns like Waldoboro are still struggling to fill shifts. Richard Lash is the EMS director.
RICHARD LASH: I've told my town manager that we'll do the best we can do. But you know, I can't continue to work 120 hours a week to fill shifts. I'm getting old, you know, and I just can't keep doing that.
WIGHT: He's 65 and wants to retire soon but, for now, is still lifting stretchers.
For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight in Lewiston, Maine.
MCCAMMON: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Maine Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.