Maine’s campaign to vaccinate residents against the coronavirus is starting to make progress, but it will still be months before many lower-risk Mainers will be able to get the shots in the arm that are seen as critical to ending the still-worsening pandemic.
The state began distributing its first shipments of the coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna in December, with first priority given to frontline health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Some other critical workers — including firefighters, police and manufacturers of COVID-19 testing supplies — were more recently declared eligible.
But the size of vaccine shipments from the federal government has been inconsistent, and by Jan. 14, just 66,500 Mainers had started getting vaccinated, or roughly 5 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people. The state had enough vaccine doses for 7 percent of its population by that point, according to the administration of Gov. Janet Mills.
Mills hopes to complete vaccinations of the highest priority groups by the end of January, then for other vulnerable groups between February and April.
Those groups will include people with underlying medical conditions, people 70 or older, and some frontline workers, which under federal guidance includes teachers, manufacturers, transit workers and supermarket staff. However, state officials are still working to determine which medical conditions and frontline jobs to prioritize within those groups.
Finally, in spring and summer, the state expects to start vaccinating any other Mainers older than 16 who were not previously eligible.
The state recently gave greater priority to the elderly in the vaccine lineup, lowering the cutoff age from 75 to 70 in the next phase of the rollout and planning to lower it to 65 in the near future.
More than 85 percent of Maine’s COVID-19 deaths have been in people 70 and older, and about 193,000 of Mainers are now in that age group, according to Mills.
The state has encountered some hiccups in the vaccine deployment, the largest of which may be inconsistent quantities of doses shipped from the federal government. For example, the 18,550 expected to arrive in the week of Jan. 17 would represent a smaller shipment than the one that came three weeks earlier.
The incoming administration of President-Elect Joe Biden has said it wants to boost how many vaccine doses are getting delivered to states.
In Maine, there have also been holdups at commercial pharmacies tasked with administering vaccines to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and some hospitals are trying to overcome a limited supply of staff to give the shots.
While hospitals and long-term care providers are coordinating many of the current vaccinations, the state is also working to develop a system for members of the general public to sign up once they are eventually eligible for them.
States such as Maine have been pushing for more federal funding to help recruit and hire vaccinators, mount public awareness campaigns and deploy technology to monitor immunizations. Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah has said health care providers, employers and other institutions might play some role in notifying members of the public.
It’s unclear exactly how much funding Maine will need to execute its plan, but officials have hammered the need for additional funding and more transparency about how the federal government is allocating shipments of the vaccine.
The request for federal funding, pegged at $8.4 billion across all the states, will become a more acute focus as states prepare to vaccinate a wider range of residents. Public health officials have said that managing all those challenges will be essential to finally controlling a pandemic that is currently raging uncontrolled.
Maine, which once had one of the lowest infection rates in the country, continues to set daily case count records. It had recorded nearly 32,000 cases of COVID-19 and 461 people had died with the disease as of Jan. 14.
The arrival of a vaccine comes with hope that the U.S. and other countries can bring the pandemic to heel by leading to herd immunity, the threshold at which a population can be protected from a virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that herd immunity could be reached and life could slowly return to normal once 75-80 percent of Americans are vaccinated in the 2nd quarter of 2021.
There are other barriers to the vaccine rollout, including misinformation about the safety of vaccines, the deadliness of COVID-19 and pandemic politics that have turned preventative measures partisan, such as mask wearing.
A Gallup poll taken in November showed that 58% of Americans are willing to get vaccinated. Among those unwilling to get the vaccine, 37% worried about the rushed timeline for its development. Another 26% said they want to be sure the vaccine is safe, while 12% said they don’t trust the vaccine in general.
The following are some other commonly asked questions about the vaccines:
Is there a difference between the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines?
The primary difference is about storage. The Pfizer vaccine requires ultracold freezers, which is one reason why the initial shipments are going to larger hospitals. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at traditional temperatures for other medicines and vaccines.
Flu vaccines contain a live but weakened form of the virus it seeks to fight. That’s not the case with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which essentially work by telling the body to produce a protein that can help it recognize and fight the coronavirus.
Are there side effects to the vaccines?
A fact sheet distributed by the FDA last week notes that the Pfizer vaccine may cause some people to experience symptoms common with the cold or flu — fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pain or nausea.
The FDA also says there is a remote chance some people will experience severe allergic reactions, such as swollen face or throat or dizziness, that will require medical attention.
The FDA recommends telling your health care provider or approved vaccinator if you have the following medical conditions before getting vaccinated: allergies, fever, a bleeding disorder, immunocompromised, pregnant or plan to become pregnant.
Will I still have to wear a mask and physically distance after vaccination?
Yes to both — at least until there’s more study of the vaccines.
One reason is that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses. Full protection doesn’t occur until after the second dose and that may take a week or two, according to public health experts.
The other reason to mask up and stay apart after vaccination is that there hasn’t been enough study to determine whether the two vaccines protect people from infection or just symptoms of the disease. In other words, people who are vaccinated might never feel sick, but it’s not yet known if those people could still get infected and infect others, too.
Answers to other frequently asked questions can be found on the U.S. CDC website here.
Maine Public reporter Patty Wight contributed to this story.
This story was originally published at 11:09 a.m. Dec. 14, 2020.