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Health

Maine Welcomes Its First Vaccine Doses As State CDC Adds 2 Deaths, 426 COVID-19 Cases

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Robert F. Bukaty
/
Associated Press
Dec. 8, 2020, file photo, a healthcare worker wears personal protective equipment as she speaks with a patient at a mobile testing location for COVID-19 in Auburn, Maine.

The first 2,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Maine Monday morning at Northern Light’s Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospitals in Portland.

As the hospitals prepare to administer the vaccine to high-risk staff, other health providers in the state, including Maine Medical Center, are still waiting to receive their doses.

Northern Light’s Eastern Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospitals are expected to begin administering the vaccine to staff on Wednesday. Preparing for this moment was no small feat, says Dr. James Jarvis, who helps oversee Northern Light’s response to the pandemic.

“I continue to tell people that what we did in four weeks typically would take a year,” he says.

Much of the planning had to be done while Northern Light was in the dark about key details, such as how many doses it would receive and when exactly they’d arrive. To prepare, Northern Light purchased four ultracold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine and distributed them to key locations across the state.

Hospital leaders made preliminary decisions about who would administer the vaccine and who would be the first to receive it. At the front of the line are employees who come into contact with COVID-19 patients. That includes doctors, nurses, dieticians and housekeeping staff.

Jarvis says the process has to be quick and methodical.

“We don’t want to vaccinate an entire department and then have the chance that that department may not be able to work for the next day or so, due to common side effects from the vaccine. So we need to do a staggered approach there,” he says.

Northern Light officials say the 975 doses each of the two hospitals received appears to be enough to cover all staff within the highest risk categories.

The rest of the approximately 6,000 doses that will be delivered to hospitals from Portland to Presque Isle this week are expected to arrive Tuesday.

During a press briefing Monday, state CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah called the vaccine’s arrival a significant step. But he said there’s still a long way to go.

“What arrived in Maine was the first 1,950 doses of the roughly 2.6 million doses that will be needed to fully vaccinate every person in Maine,” he says.

The first doses also arrived on a day when 198 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, marking an all-time high. And Shah’s agency reported two deaths and 426 more cases of the disease. That’s one case shy of Maine’s highest daily mark, 427, set a week ago on Dec. 7.

Shah put the ferocious spread of the virus and its impact in even broader context. In just the past week, Maine logged more than 2,500 new cases of the disease and 32 deaths. Across the US, the death toll is approaching 300,000.

“More Americans have died from COVID-19 in just the past nine months than who died in combat over four years in World War II,” he says.

As states continue to wage battle against the virus, supplies for the vaccine are uncertain. Maine expects to receive nearly 75,000 doses over the next three weeks. Those will be devoted to health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, which are in the top priority tier. But Shah says the broader community may not be vaccinated till late spring or early summer. That’s why he and hospital officials are urging the public to remain vigilant about masking, distancing, and avoiding gatherings.

In all, 16,349 Mainers have been diagnosed with the disease and 259 have died.