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'We're Going To Get This Whole Town Vaccinated' — To Reach Rural Mainers, Clinics Hit The Road

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Nurse Peggy Akers of Northern Light Home Care and Hospice consults with Etta Lewis at a vaccination clinic in Limington.

Thousands of people in Maine are getting a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine every day, most at mass vaccination sites. But these large clinics don’t work for everyone — especially those in rural areas.

To capture people who might otherwise fall through the cracks, pop-up clinics are being set up in town halls, churches and community centers, with the goal to make it as easy as possible for all residents to get a shot.

Southern Maine isn’t usually thought of as rural. But there are pockets where it is. For some residents in small towns, like Limington, the 30-mile distance to Portland is a big trip. So the town hall has become a local site where people can get the COVID-19 vaccine.

On a recent Friday, doors unlocked at 9 a.m. for a clinic and older adults began to stream in.

After Etta Lewis arrives, she sits down in the closest seat she can find — a metal folding chair. She uses a walker, so it’s not as easy to get around. Nurse Peggy Akers pulls up a chair and gives Lewis a second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

“Getting a good turnout?” Lewis asks Akers.

“Good turnout, yep. We’re going to get this whole town vaccinated,” Akers says.

Lewis and her husband, Wayne, live in Limington. They say they tried to get vaccine appointments at other clinics, but either didn’t hear back or had to drive too far.

“I got notices from the VA, because I’m a veteran. They wanted me to go here, there, all over the state to get a shot. I ain’t gonna drive that far,” Wayne Lewis says.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public
Maine Public
Etta Lewis waits to get vaccinated at a clinic in Limington.

Lewis says this clinic at the town hall is a big help. And that’s the idea. It’s organized by Northern Light Home Care and Hospice, which partnered with the Southern Maine Area Agency on Aging. The agency’s Renee Longarini says their job is to help find older adults who need extra support. They set up a dedicated phone line staffed by volunteers to field calls about the vaccine and set up appointments.

“Even in the moments where we’re talking to clients, and we may not have the ability to schedule them right at that moment, we’re hearing such relief on the other side of the phone. Just that they’re getting to talk to a person to find out exactly what’s going on, and gaining confidence that they are indeed going to be able to get the vaccine and we’re going to do everything we can do to help,” she says.

“One that really sticks out to me is a lady that really she started to just break down and cry. And she said, ‘I thought they’d forgotten about us,’” says Leigh Ann Howard is with Northern Light Home Care and Hospice, which has vaccinated more than 1,700 people at pop-up clinics from Calais to Kittery. “We have people that would just have extreme difficulty navigating an online registration. They don’t have internet. It’s just, it’s too much, it’s overwhelming. And so they just end up not bothering.”

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Leigh Ann Howard and Renee Longarini at a vaccination clinic in Limington.

Howard says going to a small clinic in a familiar community space can also be less intimidating than larger vaccination sites. Traveling and parking in a city can be a stressor. So is filling out paperwork.

“There’s literacy challenges and that comprehension,” she says, “so coming to the clinics, it’s low key, low stress. It’s a good pace. And we’re able to devote that one-on-one attention to help somebody navigate the form and complete it.”

The clinic in Limington caters to whatever needs people have. Partway through the day, nurse Heather Pond steps out so she can drive a dose over to a resident who’s homebound.

“We have another gentleman that is coming in at some point this afternoon. And we’re hoping to just vaccinate him in his car because I know it’s going to be hard for him to get out of his car,” she says.

The 130 people who come to the clinic range in age from their 60s to their 90s. Some walk in and out just fine on their own. Others lean on a cane or a family member. The oldest resident in town — 98-year-old Manley Brackett, who is honored with a special plaque at the town hall — is brought in by his son-in-law for his final dose.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public
Maine Public
Nurse Heather Pond of Northern Light Home Care and Hospice administers a vaccine to Stanley Yankowsky at a clinic in Limington.

At one point, a man calls to say his ride hasn’t showed up. He’s going to miss his vaccine appointment. Another man at the clinic overhears and volunteers to go pick him up. Within a half hour, Stanley Yankowsky arrives and gets his second shot.

“I am so happy,” he says. “I could not believe it until the man actually showed up. I was at a loss because I couldn’t get a ride.”

Yankowsky calls the man who helped, Rick Kaye-Schiess an “angel.”

Kaye-Schiess shrugs and says it was no big deal — the kind of thing that happens in rural Maine.

For more in Deep Dive Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.