BERLIN — Coos County’s two nursing homes have put their mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy on hold now that a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against President Joe Biden’s national vaccine mandate for health care workers.

A vaccine mandate remains in effect at all North County Healthcare System facilities including Androscoggin Valley Hospital. North Country Healthcare Systems Director for Marketing James Patry said the vaccine mandate was put in place before the federal mandate was issued.

A federal judge on Monday issued a preliminary injunction against the mandate in a lawsuit brought by 10 states including New Hampshire. The following day, a different judge expanded the injunction to apply to the entire country.

The mandate applied to all facilities that accepted federal Medicare and Medicaid moneys. It required all employees, except those with religious and medical exemptions, to have their first dose of a vaccine by Dec. 5 and their second by Jan. 4.

Berlin Coos County Nursing Home Administrator Lynn Beede said she expects the Coos County Board of Commissioners will review the county’s mandate policy when the board meets next Wednesday, Dec. 8.

Her counterpart at the Coos County Nursing Hospital in West Stewartstown Administrator Laura Mills said while the vaccine is now on hold, she believes it is temporary and there will eventually be a federal vaccine mandate for long-term care providers.

Mills said at least six staffers got vaccines at the West Stewartstown facility because of the mandate. Three were waiting until the last minute to get vaccinated.

She said three full-time staffers and four temporary employees were planning to resign rather than get vaccinated but with the mandate on hold, one of the full-time and three of the temporary employees have agreed to stay on until the mandate comes back.

Mills said 91 percent of her staff and contractors are fully vaccinated and 94 percent have had at least one vaccine.

While the hold on the mandate will help the facilities avoid losing staffing, Mills said the nursing homes were already in a staffing crisis before the mandate. At the September meeting of the Coos County commissioners, both administrators spoke about staffing shortages and warned that employees are leaving for the profession for jobs with better pay and fewer hours.

“Nursing home work is not easy. The work is physically demanding, the hours are long and the employees of the nursing home are at risk for injuries and illness,” Mills told the commission at that time.

The commission voted in September to allocate $500,000 in American Recovery Plan Act funding to give stipends to county employees including the nursing homes, corrections, sheriff’s department, and the county attorney office. The stipends provided an additional $200 per week to employees who work 30 or more hours and $100 per week to those employees who work 24-29 hours.

She and Beede have attributed the staffing problem to wages, a lack of affordable workforce housing, and not enough people.

“An increase in wages across the board would do more to help us than anything, but I am afraid the workforce is just not available here in the north country. We need affordable housing and better wages to even encourage new workers to come here,” Mills said.

She said the end of the year usually brings retirements and noted she has staff at or over retirement age and expects to lose some personal then.

“I guess the bottom line is we will continue to have a staffing issue with or without the mandate,” Mills said.

In the meantime, positive COVID-19 cases are surging in southern New Hampshire with the state Tuesday reporting over 900 new cases for Monday, 392 hospitalizations, and 22 deaths. Locally, active cases have dramatically dropped since last month’s surge here. The state Tuesday reported 18 active cases in Berlin and five in Milan. But local health-care providers are worried that large number of active cases in the rest of the state will spur another outbreak in the North Country.

Over the past two weeks, there has been a 43 percent increase in hospitalizations from COVID-19 and Gov. Chris Sununu issued an order allowing hospitals to create internal temporary acute care areas within their facilities. The governor also called for strike teams to augment reduced health-care staffing.

Patry said the volume of patients at AVH is steady. He said Tuesday the hospital had 15 patients on the medical/surgical ward and four patients in the ICU. Patry said there were three COVID-19 patients of which two were unvaccinated.

He said none of the patients required being on a ventilator.

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