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As Mass Vaccination Sites Open In Maine, Shots Are Still In Limited Supply

Gene J. Puskar
Associated Press
A student athletic trainer at Duquesne University gets her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine, during a vaccination clinic hosted by the University of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Health Department Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.

Maine is entering a new stage in the coronavirus vaccine rollout, with two large sites in Scarborough and Bangor expected to start offering shots soon to members of the public who are at least 70 years old.

That’s after most of the early shots went to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

But while those two mass vaccination sites will streamline the process for many older Mainers hoping to get inoculated in the coming weeks, the flood gates still won’t be open for many others who are seeking their shots in the arm.

That’s because the supply of shots coming from the federal government has been limited and inconsistent, holding back Maine’s rollout and leaving tens of thousands of eligible people unable to schedule appointments even though they have tried.

Since Maine began the rollout in December, just 7.7% of the state’s 1.34 million people — or 102,773 — have received at least one of the two shots necessary to complete the vaccines available from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, according to state data through Jan. 28.

The supply constraints have also left uncertainty about many of the next steps in Maine’s rollout, such as when dozens of other vaccination sites will come online or when the state will broaden the eligibility to other groups, including frontline workers and people with serious underlying medical conditions.

Here’s what you need to know about this next stage of Maine’s effort to vaccinate residents against COVID-19:

When will the mass vaccination sites open, and how many people will they be able to vaccinate?

In Bangor, the Northern Light Health hospital system plans to start offering vaccines at the Cross Insurance Center on Tuesday, Feb. 2, and again two days later. It expects to give shots to 900 pre-registered people on each of those days, then hold additional vaccination sessions as the supply allows in the coming weeks. Its eventual capacity will be upwards of 2,000 vaccinations per day.

More than 100 miles to the south, the MaineHealth hospital system is working to convert the grandstand at the former Scarborough Downs harness racing track into a mass vaccination site, with a goal of completing the project by the end of January. The organization has not yet announced when the site will open, but it’s expected to have the capacity to vaccinate at least 1,000 people per day.

So far, no other mass vaccination sites have been announced for Maine.

Where else will I be able to get vaccinated?

More than 35 other locations are now listed on a state directory of registered vaccine sites. Most of them are at hospitals or clinics scattered across the state. However, many of them have not yet started offering vaccines.

How do I sign up for the vaccine?

The Maine CDC website that lists the vaccination sites also includes specific information about how to sign up for them. Larger health systems and hospitals have dedicated phone lines and websites to register.

Northern Light Health opens scheduling for new slots at 2 p.m. Mondays. MaineHealth allows people to register for appointments by phone and receive a call back when a slot is available. The health system is encouraging people to register in advance, even if they’re not currently eligible.

Most clinics are open to the general public and do not require that individuals be patients. Some private medical groups, such as InterMed and Martin’s Point, are only offering vaccinations for their patients and will reach out directly to set up appointments.

What about Federally Qualified Health Centers?

Maine’s 20 FQHC’s provide health care to underserved communities. About 12,000 doses have been allocated to FQHCs so far, and the Maine Primary Care Association says they would like to see these health centers receive higher allocation priority.

The state is directing more doses to FQHCs the first week of February, which will allow the health centers to complete vaccinations for staff. Some will begin administering doses to people 70 and older.

Why isn’t there a state registration system?

The Maine CDC is preparing to launch a statewide registration system sometime in February, with the goal of offering a one-stop shop where people can register for the vaccine and get a date and time for an appointment at clinics across the state. It’s not clear at this point whether people who have already registered at specific locations will need to register with the state platform.

Why is it so hard to get an appointment, and what’s being done about it?

The supply of COVID-19 vaccine is still limited. About 330,000 individuals are now qualified to receive the coronavirus vaccine in Maine, but we’ve received less than half of the doses needed to administer the first shot to that number.

The future supply is also unclear. Vaccination sites are creating slots when they’re certain they’ll have doses, to avoid having to cancel appointments.

Should I sign up at multiple locations?

No. The Maine CDC’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, has said that makes already long lists at each site even more unwieldy. It could also cause the state to distribute our already limited supply of doses incorrectly, because it makes allocation decisions for vaccination providers according to demand.

Can I travel to a different part of the state to get the vaccine?

Sure, if you’re willing to make the trip twice.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine require two shots, spaced 21 and 28 days apart, respectively. The Maine CDC distributes second doses in the same amount to locations it distributed first doses. So if you drive from Sanford to Fort Kent for your first dose, you need to drive back for your second.

How much vaccine is Maine getting and where is it going?

The state has received 155,525 doses since Dec. 14 by the federal government, which is handling distribution of coronavirus vaccines through Operation Warp Speed.

Maine receives weekly allocations, which were flat for several weeks. The Biden administration has boosted state allocations by 16% for the next three weeks, which brings Maine’s weekly allocations to 20,375 through the week of Feb. 15.

The doses have been distributed to hospitals, EMS providers, outpatient medical groups, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and both independent and chain pharmacies that are part of a federal program to vaccinate residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, Maine has administered nearly 62% of the doses it’s received. That’s slightly better than the national average, which is 56%.

Who has been vaccinated so far?

Maine began vaccinating against COVID-19 on Dec. 15. The initial focus was Phase 1A, which includes health care workers as well as residents of long-term care facilities. (Vaccinations at these sites are being administered through a federal partnership with CVS, Walgreens, and independent pharmacies.)

The state is still vaccinating people in Phase 1A, which has since been expanded to include emergency service providers such as police and firefighters and individuals critical to the state’s response to COVID-19.

In mid-January, the Mills administration expanded vaccination efforts into the first tier of Phase 1B, which is people 70 and older.

Who comes next and what about the general public?

Once Maine has made significant progress vaccinating people 70 and older, it will focus on people 65 and up.

Next will be people with high-risk medical conditions and essential workers. The Mills administration has not yet decided which medical conditions and essential jobs will be given first priority. The state’s goal is to complete vaccinations for Phase 1B by April.

The next phase,1C, will include other critical workers. Phase 2 will include people ages 16 to 64 who were not eligible during previous phases.

Why is Maine vaccinating ages 75 and up before essential workers?

Following a federal recommendation to focus vaccination on those most vulnerable to COVID-19, Gov. Janet Mills announced on Jan. 13 that the state would prioritize people 75 and older.

She said the decision was based on the answer to a central question: Who is most likely to die from COVID-19? More than 85% of COVID-19 related deaths in Maine have been among this age group.

Are there side effects to the vaccines?

A fact sheet distributed by the FDA notes that the Pfizer vaccine may cause some people to experience symptoms common with the cold or flu — fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pain or nausea.

The FDA also says there is a remote chance some people will experience severe allergic reactions — such as swollen face or throat or dizziness — that will require medical attention.

The FDA recommends telling your health care provider or approved vaccinator if you have the following medical conditions before getting vaccinated: allergies, fever, a bleeding disorder, immunocompromised, pregnant or plan to become pregnant.

What is the threshold for herd immunity?

There are varying estimates. Some health experts say herd immunity, also known as collective immunity, can be achieved when 70-80% of the U.S. population is vaccinated. Others say it might need to be closer to 90%.

Either way, it’s going to take some time to get there. And it will also depend on how effective states’ vaccination programs are, whether they’re adequately funded by the federal government and whether health officials can maintain and increase public confidence in getting vaccinated.

Will I still have to wear a mask and physically distance after vaccination? Even if I’m with other people who have been vaccinated?

Yes to both — at least until there’s more study of the vaccines.

One reason is that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses. Full protection doesn’t occur until after the second dose, and that may take a week or two, according to public health experts.

The other reason to mask up and stay apart after vaccination is that there hasn’t been enough study to determine whether the two vaccines protect people from infection or just symptoms of the disease. In other words, people who are vaccinated might never feel sick, but it’s not yet known if those people could still get infected and infect others, too.

Can kids get the vaccine?

The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for ages 16 and older, while Moderna has been approved for ages 18 and up. Both Pfizer and Moderna are conducting clinical trials that include children who are at least 12 years old. These trials will take months, but Moderna has said that it hopes to have data before the 2021 school year.

U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a recent White House COVID-19 briefing that some children will hopefully be able to get vaccinated by late spring or early summer. Clinical trials are not yet underway for children younger than 12. A vaccine may not be approved for this younger age group until late 2021.

Will the vaccine still be effective against the new COVID-19 mutation?

Vaccine manufacturers and public health officials, including Fauci, have said that the vaccines currently distributed are likely effective against the new strain. However, the federal government and vaccine manufacturers are both testing to make sure.

Maine Public political correspondent Steve Mistler contributed to this piece.