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Health

Maine Health Care Workers Begin Receiving COVID-19 Vaccinations

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Southern Maine Health Care photos
ER Nurse Katie Short of Southern Maine Health Care gets vaccinated Tuesday.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 began in Maine on Tuesday. Frontline workers at Maine Medical Center in Portland and Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford were the first to receive doses. It’s the beginning of a massive effort to get the pandemic under control, and a bright spot for health care workers as the case and death count keeps climbing.

Vaccination began at Maine Medical Center at 9 a.m. Tuesday, just hours after the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived. And ICU nurse Kayla Mitchell was first in line.

“It’s been exciting, overwhelming. All of those things at once. But I feel like it’s a step in the right direction, and I hope that others choose to get the vaccine,” she says.

Mitchell calls the arrival of the vaccine a big moment for Maine and for hospitals that are caring for an ever-growing number of COVID-19 patients.

“I’ve been a nurse for nine years, and I think that this is the sickest population that I’ve taken care of,” she says.

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Credit MaineHealth
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MaineHealth
ICU nurse Kayla Mitchell receives the state's first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday.

Mitchell was the first of 150 staff expected to receive the vaccine Tuesday at both Maine Medical Center and Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford. Among that initial group was emergency room physician Christine Hein. She witnessed Mitchell get the shot.

“It was really exciting when the first person was vaccinated. There was a group of us standing there for the vaccine, and we just sort of spontaneously started clapping,” she says.

Hein says it’s remarkable that a vaccine is available just 12 months after the viral code for COVID-19 was shared. She says it’s her duty to get vaccinated, but did research and is confident it’s safe.

Even though the threat of the coronavirus will remain a reality for months, Hein says the vaccine marks a long-awaited turning point in the pandemic.

“There have just been so many days where it feels like a weight that’s difficult to get out from under. So, to have this opportunity to actually have something that is forward progress, this just feels like a really important step in getting a handle on the situation for our state, our country and around the world as well,” she says.

It’s also a morale booster for health workers. Katie Short is an emergency room nurse at Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford. Since the holidays, work has been especially chaotic, she says, with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

“It’s just been tough. A lot of us have just been ready for promising news with this vaccine, I think, and just tired. We all just have this tired sense,” she says.

Short was scheduled to receive her first dose a little after lunchtime. About a half hour later, Short said it felt significant but also routine.

“Just kinda felt like a flu shot. Only a little longer wait, I guess,” she says with a laugh.

People who receive the vaccine are monitored for 15 minutes after for potential reactions.

Maine General Health in Augusta received its vaccine delivery Tuesday morning, and Chief Medical Officer Steve Diaz says the plan is to start rolling up sleeves Wednesday with those they’ve identified as Tier One recipients.

“Our emergency department personnel, our critical care unit, and our COVID unit. So those are the three places we’ll start,” he says.

Diaz says that, as exciting as the development is, it’s just the beginning of a long process toward “bending the curve” and that people need to keep doing what medical experts have been asking them to do.

“Physical distancing, masking, hand hygiene, staying home if you’re ill. All of those things must stay in place for months, probably into the summer — if not past the summer,” he says.

Speaking on Maine Public’s Maine Calling program, state CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said the pace of a four-phase distribution plan hinges on vaccine manufacturers.

“One of the rate-limiting steps for how quickly we can proceed through these phases is just how much vaccine the manufacturers can pump out. The more that they can produce, the more accelerated that we can be,” Shah said.

Vaccine manufacturer Pfizer last month cut its initial production target after citing difficulty securing raw materials to produce the vaccine.

A second vaccine by Moderna could receive emergency authorization later this week and Maine hospitals and long-term care facilities are hoping to receive initial shipments of the vaccine next week.

A total of 12,675 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected in Maine this week.

More immunization clinics for health care workers will get underway across the state Wednesday, including at Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick and at hospitals in other health systems.

MaineHealth officials say it will take several weeks to vaccinate all eligible employees. And retired doctors and nurses are helping in the effort to administer doses to those on the frontlines as quickly as possible.