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Health

As Demand Wanes For Coronavirus Vaccines, Maine Clinics Target The Busy And Hesitant

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Rebecca Conley
/
Maine Public

By Memorial Day, the Maine CDC hopes that two-thirds of eligible Mainers will have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Currently, just one in five Mainers age 16 to 49 have been vaccinated. After an initial rush on appointments when eligibility opened to this group in beginning of April, many clinics report waning demand. Public health officials say the primary reason is convenience. But some holdouts say they are hesitant.

Rebecca Blake has had the chance to get the vaccine several times. Her doctors' office has offered it. So has a community health clinic. Her employer will give paid time off. But Blake says she's just not interested right now.

"I don't think it's that I don't ever want to do it, it's just that I'd rather wait maybe a year or two," she says.

Blake is 28. She lives in Robbinston, a small town in Washington County. Her job isn't in health care. She's a single mom and says she sticks close to home.

For all those reasons, Blake doesn't feel she has much of a chance of getting COVID-19. For her, the vaccine itself holds more risk. Some people feel sick after getting the shot, and she says she feels sick when she gets the flu vaccine.

"Personally I have been hesitant because I have a son who is almost six, and without knowing the long term side effects, I'm a little bit nervous about getting it and something happening to me and leaving him behind," she says.

Blake is well aware of the seriousness of COVID-19. A friend's father almost died from it. Her mom is at risk because she has an underlying health issue.

Blake says she supports people who choose to get vaccinated, like her mom. But she thinks precautions against the disease will be necessary for years, so getting the vaccine wouldn't really change much for her. It's not a ticket to normalcy.

Mark Farrell of Auburn also doesn't see a benefit in getting the shot.

"You know, I'm hearing all these conflicting stories of vaccinated people still getting sick and passing it on to other people," he says.

Farrell, who's 34, also worries about long term side effects from the vaccine. Public health officials say they haven't been an issue — most side effects happen within the first 15 minutes of vaccination. But Farrell says he's reluctant to put anything extra in his body, and his family would rather forego the vaccine and stick to the precautions they're already taking.

"We don't have people over to the house. We don't go to parties. We don't go to restaurants. I feel like, yeah, we're not jumping in line for the vaccine. But we're also doing our part in other aspects that I don't feel that most people are," he says.

Both Farrell and Blake are among the estimated 11 to 14 percent of people in Maine that the U.S. CDC estimates are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine.

That reluctance is something that Ashley Melhiser, patient services supervisor of Eastport Health Care, has noticed in recent weeks. When vaccines were first available, she says her phone rang off the hook with people eager to schedule appointments. Now, she makes the calls.

"As we get down kind of into the younger generations, we are seeing a lot more hesitancies," she says.

Melhiser isn't surprised. She herself is 30, and says her friend group is split on whether to get the vaccine. When she talks to patients who are unsure, she often shares her own positive experience getting the shot. A provider also makes a follow up call.

"Just to kind of get some background information for themselves, like why does this person not want it? Is this person scared, are there a lot of unknowns, are there any questions that they can answer for the patients? And then probably about 50 percent of the time when that happens, the patient ends up calling back to schedule an appointment after talking to their provider," she says.

Waning demand has prompted Northern Light Health to tentatively plan to close its mass vaccination site in Bangor at the end of May.

At its peak, the clinic was administering more than 3,000 vaccinations a day. Now, appointments for first doses have dropped to hundreds a day. But Northern Light's Associate Vice President of Pharmacy, Matthew Marston, says he thinks the drop is more about convenience than hesitancy. So the health system is looking at new ways to offer the vaccine for easy access, such as pop-up clinics and directly at doctor's offices.

"We do anticipate it's going to be much smaller numbers than what we're used to seeing at our actual vaccine clinics. But I think that's okay. I think spreading the number of avenues and channels for patients to get the vaccine and adding convenience is going to help us in this effort as we get to the groups who may not be rushing to get to appointment, but may not be opposed to the vaccine either," Marston says.

Dr. Sarah Skelton of Auburn Family Medicine says she's fielding more questions about the vaccine — especially from parents who ask if their teenagers and 20-somethings should get it. She tells them about the experience of her three young adult children, who all got the vaccine. She also shares the reasons others have told her why they decided to get vaccinated.

"I talk to people who say, I'm getting the shot so I can see my grandchildren. I'm getting the shot so I can protect my grandmother. I'm getting the shot because I want my kids to go back to school. There are a lot of different motivations, and so trying to focus on the positive of the vaccine and what the vaccine allows you to do seems to resonate with a lot of people," Skelton says.

Talking to a doctor helped 28-year old Cassandra Stanhope of Hampden make a decision. She wants to have a second child and worried the vaccine could affect fertility.

"My physician was great telling me about the pros and the cons. She didn't say, 'You have to get this because of what you want to do in the future.' Her thought was, 'Let's figure this out together and make sure it's the best option for you,'" Stanhope says.

When it came down to it, Stanhope says the benefit of the vaccine far outweighed any of her worries, and she decided to get the shot.

"Our world is what it is right now," she says. "We don't know when it's going to change. We don't know what's going to happen in the future. Is the vaccine going to protect us 100 percent? Again, we just don't know. However, if you know that you can take a shield into war versus nothing, wouldn't you want to pick something?"