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Health

Step Right Up For Your Shot: Maine's Agricultural Fairs A New Focus For COVID Vaccine Efforts

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Linda Coan O'Kresik/BDN
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BDN
Skowhegan, Maine — August 20, 2021 — Everett Flannery (left), paramedic with Redington-Fairview EMS, helps Craig Moore and his girlfriend April Paine fill out paperwork for Moore to get his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Skowhegan State Fair on Friday. The clinic was held by Redington-Fairview General Hospital and will also be available on Saturday, the last day of the fair.

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Craig Moore knew he had to get his COVID-19 vaccine soon. He was not expecting it to happen at the fair.

The 50-year-old from Sumner was on his way to check out his friend’s draft horses with his partner, April Paine, when they spotted the Redington-Fairview General Hospital emergency medical services tent and ambulance next to a grandstand at the 203rd Skowhegan State Fair, held virtually last year as the pandemic moved from its first summer into fall.

Moore and Paine wanted to wait a few years to get vaccinated. But Moore had just been told by his doctor that he should get the shot because his liver condition makes him vulnerable to the virus. On Friday, the shot was right there. EMS workers were also offering the Moderna shot, which they thought would bring fewer side effects.

So he rolled up his sleeve.

“You always hear about side effects, and with my liver failure, I’m not sure how I’ll react,” he said as a pack of harness racers thundered by. “But my doctor told me I should.”

Moore is the type of person that health care providers are hoping to target for shots as fairs are becoming the latest venue where people can get vaccinated after the pandemic shut them down last year. Relatively few shots have been given so far at fairs in Skowhegan and Bangor, but many have gone to vulnerable or previously skeptical Mainers.

A clinic was not originally scheduled to take place at the Somerset County fair, but planners pulled the clinic together after the EMS workers offered to staff it. As the pandemic enters another surge and Somerset continues to be the least vaccinated county in the state, health care workers say any dose delivered is a victory.

“I would have never imagined this two years ago,” said Kelly Woodard, an advanced EMT whose job at the fair typically means being on standby in case harness racers or demolition derby participants get hurt.

Friday’s clinic was “pretty successful,” Woodard said, with 12 people, including seven fair workers, getting shots by 2:30 p.m., an hour before the clinic was supposed to close. A first day last Sunday netted 10 people, but a Monday clinic saw no takers.

Redington-Fairview pharmacist Kassim Sembatya said he did not expect the fair clinic to deliver many shots. But “that’s where the people are now,” he said.

Sporadic fair clinics are likely to continue into the fair season. A clinic run by the University of New England School of Pharmacy and Northern Light Health gave out nine vaccines in one day at the Bangor State Fair. The Union Fair will offer a Thursday clinic.

The Bangor clinic vaccinated “far more” people than expected, according to Dr. Emily Dornblaser of the pharmacy school. Among the vaccinated there were a father and son both starting college, a young woman whose mother is opposed to the vaccines and a young mother of two finally convinced by her mother to get the shot.

The pandemic felt far away as the midway opened Friday afternoon with a few hundred people milling around the fairgrounds, taking refuge from temperatures in the high 80s in the grandstands or watching their children on rides.

One T-shirt vendor who gave his first name as Chris said a print depicting the cartoon character Rick from the show “Rick and Morty” with a mask and a slogan saying “F*** Corona” was selling “OK,” maybe among the top 20 designs he has sold this fair season.

“It’s a vibe for some people,” he said. “People are sick of being locked up.”

It is hard for health care providers to know why vaccines have lagged in Somerset County, where 49 percent of the eligible population has received a final dose, compared with the state average of 70 percent.

Matthew L’Italien, the director of Redington’s public health department, said demand has largely tapered off in the hospital’s service area from around Skowhegan up through The Forks region. He was worried about what an increase in cases could do to the 25-bed hospital.

“It’s really frustrating at this point,” he said. “Vaccination is clearly the best way to move forward and prevent people from getting ill.”

Sembatya chalked it up to misinformation within the community about the safety and nature of the vaccines. As cases rise, he said it appeared vaccines were ticking up slightly. With Gov. Janet Mills recently requiring all health care workers getting vaccinated, some might be workers who need to get the shot to stay employed, he thought.

Ashley, who wanted to go by her first name because she did not want people to know she was getting vaccinated, traveled from Kennebec County to the fair for a shot. She initially did not want to get the vaccine, citing theories that the virus was man-made.

But she felt she would be required to get vaccinated eventually because she coaches schoolchildren. She also wanted to protect her young, at-risk child who cannot get the vaccine yet. The fair was also the first place she heard about offering the Johnson & Johnson shot.

“I think it’s going to be mandated for everyone down the road,” she said. “So I said, ‘Why not just get it done and over with?’ I was tired of waiting.”

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

This story appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.