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Vaccine Eligibility Expands To First Responders Now, More Mainers In Next Phase

Eduardo Munoz
Pool via AP
Michelle Chester, director of employee health services at Northwell Health, holds a bottle containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Northwell Health's Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital in Valley Stream, N.Y., on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

Gov. Janet Mills is revising the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan to expand who is included in the current phase, 1A, and who comes next, in Phase 1B. The changes re-prioritize adults 70 and older and those with high-risk medical conditions, as well as certain workers.

But details on how the state will expand vaccinations beyond health care workers and long-term care facilities are still being worked out.

Ever since Maine began distributing the vaccine in December, there have been questions about where exactly different groups of people fall in the line up. At a news briefing on Wednesday, Gov. Mills offered more clarity when she announced updates to the plan, including an expansion of who falls under 1A.

“Today, we’re expanding Phase 1A to include other first responders and public safety personnel — firefighters, police, corrections officials — to ensure the continuity of basic public safety services for Maine people,” she says.

Phase 1A also now includes workers outside of health care who are critical to the COVID-19 response. Specifically, individuals who manufacture, distribute, process or report COVID-19 tests at places like IDEXX, Abbott Labs, Jackson Lab, and the state CDC.

Even with the addition of these individuals, Mills says she still expects Maine to move to Phase 1B by the end of the month. And that phase will also be expanded to prioritize individuals who are at least 70 years old. The cut-off before was 75.

“More than 85% of COVID-19 related deaths in our state have been among people 70 years of age and older,” she says.

There are roughly 193,000 people who are 70 and older in the state. Once a significant number have been vaccinated, or if the supply of doses increases, Maine will move to vaccinate individuals down to age 65.

Also bumped up to Phase 1B are people with high-risk medical conditions, though the administration is still determining which conditions will fall under this category.

Details on how and where older adults can get vaccinated will be released next week, and Mills is asking for patience.

“Let me be real clear. If you’re 70 years of age or older, please don’t go rushing to your doctor’s office when you hear this news. They’re not ready to vaccinate you yet,” she says.

The changes in Maine come one day after the Trump administration urged states to immediately prioritize older adults and people with underlying health conditions to accelerate the pace of the vaccine rollout. Federal officials also announced that they would ship more doses to states, but the Mills administration says supply is still a major constraint.

State CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says next week’s allocation is only 1,300 doses more than what Maine received this week.

“We were getting more doses of vaccine at the end of December than we are now,” he says.

Something else that’s in short supply as the state rollout expands is people to staff vaccination clinics. Paul Boland of Northern Light Health says that the health system is working with schools to find pharmacy and nursing students who can help with the effort.

“We know we’ll need more people. And we’re working quickly on ensuring we have those numbers of staff to meet the community needs,” he says.

Despite the unknowns about how vaccine distribution will move to the general public, John Alexander of Central Maine Healthcare says expanding eligibility will actually make things easier.

“In term of the delivery model, to just have as many people presenting to us in a scheduled manner, so that we use every bit of vaccine that we have available,” he says.

Gov. Mills says the state had to make tough choices about who to prioritize in its update to the vaccine plan. Essential workers are still a part of 1B, but are now further down the list. For those questioning the changes, Mills says decisions were guided by a single question:

“Whose life can you save? Who is more likely to die with COVID-19 if they don’t get the vaccination?” she says.

The Mills administration aims to vaccinate that higher risk group by April.