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Traveling By Boat, Vaccinators 'Injecting Hope' For Maine Islanders

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Patty Wight
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Maine Public
Sharon Daley (second from left) drapes an arm over a Styrofoam cooler filled with Moderna vaccines, bound for the Cranberry Islands.

Even as the number of clinics that offer the COVID-19 vaccine has grown, some Mainers still face challenges getting access. Sometimes the barrier is no internet connection. Sometimes it’s finding a ride. And for some communities, it’s miles of ocean.

Residents of Maine’s islands face unique hurdles in their efforts to get vaccinated, but a Maine nonprofit that’s now over a century old is bringing doses out to them.

As the mail boat to the Cranberry Islands pulls away from the dock at Northeast Harbor on a recent morning, it carries a stack of packages for island residents. But on this particular morning, there’s another piece of especially precious cargo — a Styrofoam cooler, nestled into a reusable shopping bag.

Sharon Daley drapes a protective arm over the top and constantly checks a device that resembles an iPhone. It’s actually a thermometer, because the cooler contains 50 doses of the temperature-sensitive Moderna vaccine.

“This is a new system, so we’re getting used to how much Styrofoam to put in, and how much bubble wrap,” she says. “Some of it’s just anxiety to make sure we’re doing it right, so I just keep checking it.”

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Credit Maine Seacoast Mission
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Maine Seacoast Mission
Lead nurse Sharon Daley (right) and nurse Maureen Giffin (left) prepare syringes for COVID-19 vaccination.

Daley is a nurse and the director of Island Health Services for the Maine Seacoast Mission, a nonprofit that’s been providing services to island communities since 1905. Since late February, she and a small team have been traveling to seven different islands in Down East Maine to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

On each trip, time is of the essence. Once the doses are placed in a cooler, they need to be used within 12 hours.

The first stop is Islesford, a village on Little Cranberry Island. The Mission sets up at a community building in the center of town. Nurse Maureen Giffin is preparing syringes.

“We’re injecting hope. It doesn’t really get better than this. Helping all these folks out on the island,” she says.

All adults on the island can get the vaccine. The Mission got permission from the state CDC to accelerate eligibility ahead of the rest of the state. Daley says vaccinating as many people as possible just makes sense for the islands.

“For one thing, some of the islands, when it was 70 and over it was very important to get them vaccinated, but if we came out, it was going to be three people. And it’s just not practical,” she says.

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Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Oliver Blank waits after receiving his COVID-19 vaccine.

Oliver Blank, 18, is among the first to get a dose.

“Feels good. Really good to be moving to the other side of the pandemic, being able to put it behind me and not having to worry about it everywhere I go,” Blank says.

Though island communities are miles from the mainland, that isolation doesn’t feel like a cloak of protection against COVID-19, says Kelly Dickson. She’s one of the 60 or so year-round residents on Islesford. In some ways, she says, islanders can feel more vulnerable.

“Everyone’s paranoid if one person comes out here with COVID, the whole island could get it,” she says.

That’s why 63-year old Cindy Thomas, the Islesford librarian, is grateful the Mission is doing the clinic on the island.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she says. “I’m so emotional I want to cry.”

Staying put means less chance of exposure to the disease. When the pandemic first hit, Thomas says she didn’t go off island for 110 days.

“People don’t understand — when you get on the boat, that’s a small area. And if you’ve got 12 people inside there, there’s no way you can social distance. So the riskiest thing I did during this pandemic was ride the boat,” she says.

Thomas says this island clinic also eliminates the complication of trying to schedule a vaccine appointment on the mainland.

“Sometimes the boat is canceled. So, you have your appointment off island and then the wind is really bad and they cancel the boat, then you have to start all over again trying to get another appointment,” she says.

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Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Sharon Daley gives a shot to Cindy Thomas.

Of course, the logistics of bringing the vaccine to islands presents its own challenges. The Maine Seacoast Mission’s Director of Island Outreach, Douglas Cornman, says setting up appointments for each resident, pulling together their paperwork and coordinating travel to islands as far as 20 miles offshore are themselves monumental tasks. Throw weather into the mix, and all that work can be upended.

“So this trip, I had set up everyone’s appointment, then the wind blew 35 knots, and we had to switch the island rotation, so I had to switch everyone’s appointments,” he says.

And switch boats. The strong winds can prevent the Mission’s own boat — the 75-foot Sunbeam V, from tying up at the dock.

When it’s time to leave Islesford for the next clinic on Great Cranberry Island, the team relies on a local lobsterman for a ride. It’s 20 degrees out, the winds are blowing 20 mph and waves are getting kicked up over the side of the boat. There’s no avoiding getting wet and cold.

The crew gets dropped on shore at Great Cranberry, with fingers thawing as the team sets up at a building that usually serves as a social hub. It’s a fitting site for what’s likely the biggest social event in a year.

Lauren Gray, a teacher, gets a shot after dismissing her students for the day.

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Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Lauren and Josh Gray

“It’s amazing,” she says. “It just feels like there’s a light. Even in our small community, we haven’t been gathering indoors. Out here on the island that makes such a big difference in getting through the winter, is being able to go to people’s houses and share a meal on this rock that’s three miles out.”

Lobsterman Kevin Wedge also comes in for a shot. He says he’s not sure how he’d get the vaccine if the Seacoast Mission hadn’t come to the island.

“Oh I think this is great. One of those things where I don’t have a vehicle off island anymore. So if I go off island to try to get a shot, I’ve got to hire a taxi or something like that to get to where I could get one.”

Between the two islands, more than 50 people get the vaccine. The Maine Seacoast Mission will be back in a few weeks to administer second doses.