(The Center Square) – A war of words between Gov. Janet Mills and Maine's Republican leaders over a vaccine mandate has escalated, with the GOP firing back at Mills' claims that they've "done little" to help the state's COVID-19 response.
On Thursday, House Republican Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham sent a letter to Mills accusing her of ignoring the complaints of health care workers and others over her administration's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The fiery statement follows a back-and-forth earlier this week over a request from GOP lawmakers to reconvene the Legislature to adjust Mills' vaccine mandate.
The lawmakers said the mandate threatens the work of first responders and hospitals which they claimed are rationing health care as workers who don't want to get vaccinated leave their jobs.
"To imply that Republicans are trying to weaken the state’s COVID-19 response by bringing forth a concern from one of our health care providers is what I deem to be repugnant," she wrote. "It is a classic example of the government knowing best. This mentality continues to add to distrust of government and feeds division."
Earlier in the week, Mills angrily responded to a request by GOP leaders to the Legislature's Democratic leadership urging them to rollback the vaccine mandate by allowing health care workers to undergo regular COVID-19 testing as an alternative to getting vaccinated.
"Throughout this pandemic, they have opposed nearly every public health measure proven to limit the spread of this dangerous and deadly virus," Mills said in the statement.
Under Mills' order, doctors, nurses, dental workers and others in the state's health care system now have until Oct. 29 to get vaccinated against the virus. The mandate includes health care workers in nursing homes and other long term care facilities, firefighters, emergency medical service organizations and dental workers. Only medical exemptions will be allowed.
Health care facilities that do not comply with the vaccine mandate will be at risk of losing their state license, the Mills administration said.
Mills said the new rules are needed to prevent further outbreaks as the state battles a resurgence of the virus that has contributed to a rise in new infections and hospitalizations.
But Republican lawmakers said the mandate will have "devastating" consequences for the state's health care system and is pushing it to the "breaking point."
But Mills said regular testing is not an effective alternative to getting vaccinated and would not be in line with the federal health care guidelines.
Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is challenging Mills in next year's gubernatorial election, has also weighed in on the debate. He issued a statement on Thursday criticizing Mills for being "heavy-handed" on the vaccine requirements for health care workers, saying the policy is forcing hospitals and nursing homes to ration care.
"Instead of her inflexible, heavy handed mandates, we need policies which empower people, especially when it comes to the flexibility needed by Maine’s medical providers," he said in the statement. "Maine people should not be forced to lose their jobs and to lose their paychecks due to Janet Mills inflexible decision making."
In her letter, Dillingham appeared to offer an olive branch by suggesting that the two camps put aside political differences and "focus on policy and communication."
"Let us have an open exchange of ideas, no matter where they come from. Let us hear from individuals who are directly impacted by the decisions we make in Augusta without assigning blame to them and personally attacking their beliefs," she wrote. "After all, these are the people we represent and serve."