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Health

Maine Moves To Age-Based Vaccine Eligibility, Expanding To 60 And Older Next Week

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Jennifer Mitchell
/
Maine Public file
A sign at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine in Maine will now be based on age.

Gov. Janet Mills made the announcement on Friday, saying the strategy focuses on the strongest predictor of who is most likely to get seriously ill or die from COVID-19. State officials say it will also allow Maine to move through the vaccination rollout more quickly, starting with people age 60 and up who will become eligible next week.

If you’ve been wondering where you fit into the vaccine rollout, the answer has suddenly become much simpler. Priority won’t be based on high-risk medical conditions or the type of job you have — it will be based solely on age.

Starting Wednesday, March 3, Mainers 60 and older will be eligible. Each month after, Mills says, the next age bracket will become eligible.

“Opening up vaccination to those who are 50 years and older in April, and then 40 years and older in May, 30 years of age and older in June. With anyone younger than that becoming eligible in July,” she says.

That’s a shift from U.S. CDC recommendations and Maine’s previous rollout plan, which would have next vaccinated people 65 and older, then moved to people with high risk medical conditions and frontline workers.

So why the switch? State CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says to consider a basic question.

“And that question is this. If you were a doctor and you had a patient with COVID-19 sitting in front of you, and you wanted to understand that patient’s risk of death or severe disease because of their COVID-19 illness, what is the most important piece of data that you would need?” he says.

The answer, Shah says, is age.

“In our state, 98% of deaths from COVID-19 have been among people aged 50 and older,” he says.

Even after combing through scientific data to examine the risk for certain medical conditions, Shah says the most important factor consistently boils down to how old you are. And given that Maine has the highest median age of any state, he says, eligibility by age is the right strategy.

“This age-based approach is what will be best for Maine, in terms of saving the most number of lives in the shortest amount of time,” he says.

It’s also an approach that’s different from most other states. In New England, Connecticut is the only other state that’s adopted an age-based strategy, though it has also prioritized school and child care staff. But Mills says several other governors have recently indicated they may follow suit, basing eligibility on age.

Not only does the approach focus on those most at risk for serious illness and death, she says, it’s easier for vaccine administrators to determine eligibility.

“Rather than try to figure out which medical conditions are at greater risk than others,” Mills says, or verify what kind of job a person has.

Still, Mills says she knows some people will be disappointed. Teachers in particular have been pressing the governor to open up eligibility for them. And though they will have to follow Maine’s new age-based strategy, Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services says she’s working with the Department of Education to establish dedicated clinics for school staff.

“The governor hopes that providing dedicated opportunities for vaccination for age-eligible teachers on top of their option to go to existing sites, Maine can further protect school staff moving forward,” she says.

When asked whether any exceptions to the age-based strategy could be made for people with particularly high-risk medical conditions, Lambrew says the state has to take a public health approach, which is based on populations.

“We don’t have the ability or the capacity to go one by one to do eligibility determinations. These are hard decisions but we went with the science, and that’s why we went with these groups and made them eligible first,” she says.

It opens the doors next week to an additional 200,000 people in Maine who are 60 and older. State officials say this group should not attempt to make appointments until they officially become eligible next Wednesday.

Maine will continue to vaccinate people 70 and older. As of Friday, more than 60 percent of people in that age group had at least received a first dose.

No new COVID-19 deaths were reported by the Maine Center for Disease Control on Friday.

The break comes after two days of double digit increases, nearly all of which stemmed from the agency’s review of vital records earlier in the year.

The Maine CDC reports 178 new cases of the disease, bringing the the state’s total to 44,295.

Correction: Connecticut's vaccine strategy is not strictly age-based.