The Maine Center for Disease Control requisitioned nearly 2,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine from Walgreens on Monday over concerns that the pharmacy chain was not using them quickly enough to protect older Mainers in long-term care facilities.
Walgreens and CVS are two pharmacy chains that have been tapped by the federal government to play a central role in inoculating residents and staff at long-term care facilities in Maine, and they’ve administered at least 4,000 doses in Maine so far.
The state CDC tracks how many doses the pharmacies receive and administer, and the agency’s director Dr. Nirav Shah said Monday that his staff was concerned that Walgreens had excess doses and no immediate plan to use them.
“And one of those two chains indicated that they did in fact have doses on hand and they could not tell us when … they could put them into arms. That didn’t work for me,” Shah said.
Shah then redirected those doses to hospitals in the Lewiston area — Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s. He says both hospitals are able to use the doses to vaccinate health care workers.
“That’s a tough call to make, but I’m prepared and will continue to do that if we don’t see that pace increase going forward,” Shah said.
The decision came amid scrutiny of a nationwide vaccination program that’s underdelivered on initial projections.
States like Maine continue to report lower allocations from the federal government than originally anticipated.
Meanwhile, people anxiously await their turn as states prioritize health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities.
That’s led to increasing pressure on public health officials to demonstrate that they’re using every dose that they’ve received so far.
Rick Erb, CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents 200 Maine nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said he was not aware of the CDC’s decision until Monday’s press briefing with Shah.
“Well of course the last thing we want to see is any vaccine go to waste, so we certainly understand that if there’s an immediate surplus … it needs to be deployed,” he said.
Erb said his organization just wants to make sure that long-term care facilities aren’t forgotten when more vaccine becomes available.
It’s not clear how the CDC’s decision to redirect those doses will impact inoculations for residents and staff at assisted living facilities.
Erb said his members are also concerned about the pace of inoculations.
“I’m sure Maine CDC is frustrated and we are as well that we would like to see the whole program carried out as quickly as possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, Steve Costello, a spokesman for St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, said the arrival of additional doses will allow the facility to inoculate more of its own staff, who fall into the priority group known as 1A.
“Absolutely, that will allow us to progress through 1A much faster and also reach out to dentist offices and other physician offices that may not have had an opportunity yet to get a vaccination for their people. So it definitely is allowing us to do that on top of finishing 1A with our own staff,” he said.
Walgreens did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Monday’s decision raises questions about why excess doses were not being administered to people at high-risk of contracting COVID-19.
Shah has said previously that pharmacies will play an important role in later phases of the state’s vaccination plan as it moves into mass inoculations.
Details of that plan — including how people will be notified when it’s their turn and how they’ll be scheduled — are still in development.
Maine Public reporter Patty Wight contributed to this story.