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'Bring It' — Maine Health Care Workers Eager To Get Their Shots As Vaccinations Expand In 2nd Day

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Dr. Claudia Geyer gets vaccinated for COVID-19 at Central Maine Medical Center on Wednesday.

The rollout of Maine’s first COVID-19 vaccinations for high risk health workers gained momentum today. About half a dozen hospitals are now running clinics, and by midday, the state CDC reported that close to 500 health care workers had received their first dose.

Despite the excitement and hope the vaccine brings, health officials say administering doses to the top priority group will take months.

Central Maine Medical Center launched a soft rollout of the vaccine Wednesday for about 60 employees before it ramps up in subsequent days. Dr. Claudia Geyer was one of those employees, and she could hardly contain her excitement. As she sat down to offer her left arm to a colleague, she pumped both fists in the air.

“Good. Bring it,” she says.

A few moments later, Geyer had a Band-Aid and a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, a disease she’s been grappling with for months as a hospitalist.

“I am beyond grateful. Thrilled. Honored to be getting this now,” she says.

Geyer got her shot on a day when new daily cases of COVID-19 in Maine exceeded 500 — a new record. It’s also at a time, she says, when most of the COVID unit at CMMC is filled with people who became seriously ill after Thanksgiving get-togethers.

“It was months and months and months of, ‘How are we going to get out of this?’ And with this surge being the worst for Maine, so this is the worst we’ve had it by far. The most patients that we’ve seen. The most hospitalized patients. You’re seeing numbers every day of infections. Without this, it’s a dark outlook. But with this, the lights come in,” she says.

Vaccinations also got underway early Wednesday morning at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. By midday, Dr. James Jarvis said the hospital had already vaccinated 125 staff — twice the number they had expected to.

“Our goal today actually was 65-75 individuals. But things worked so well, it’s allowed us to continue to vaccinate those individuals who are on our front lines who want to get the vaccine,” he says.

Still, Jarvis cautions that this is just the beginning of a very long process. The director of the Maine CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah, broke down the timeline during a news briefing Wednesday. In the top priority group, Phase 1A, which includes health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, there are about 100,000 people. The next phase, 1B, which includes essential workers, amounts to several hundred thousand people.

“Just in those two phases alone, we could be looking at a third of the state in some renditions of the model. That throughput may require many months just to go through Phase 1A and 1B,” he says.

Let alone Phase 1C, which includes older Mainers and those with serious medical conditions. The sticking point, Shah says, is how many doses the state will receive. And at this point, Maine has been allocated about 75,000 doses over three weeks, a fraction of what’s needed to cover everyone in Phase 1.

“We’re in Week One right now, and so we really don’t have clarity beyond the next two weeks or so,” he says. “That’s why it’s just really difficult from a projection perspective to provide what that timeline may look like.”

That’s why, even as promising as the arrival of the vaccine is, hospital officials like Jarvis are worried. The health system is currently caring for 64 COVID-19 patients, and across the state, total hospitalizations are edging toward 200.

“So that’s a tremendous increase in numbers. This should be a warning sign to everybody that this is widespread,” he says.

Geyer says her team is terrified that another surge will happen after people gather for Christmas. She’s skipping a visit with her parents this holiday. But the vaccine she received Wednesday brings her one step closer to seeing them, she says, however many months away that may be.

And she hopes that when the vaccine is more widely available, others will take it.

“It’s so real. The risk is in front of our faces every day. But the benefit of this so far outweighs the risk that I’m thrilled to take it, and I would encourage anyone to really think deeply about potential risks versus risks that are real,” Geyer says.