Anticipating surge in doses, Maine set to open more mass vaccination sites

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Joe Lawlor, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Mar. 16—Maine is preparing for an influx of vaccine doses in late March and early April by opening more mass vaccination sites, planning for additional sites and maximizing the capacity of locations already giving vaccinations.

The state also announced on Tuesday that the Department of Corrections will begin vaccinating prisoners 60 and older next week, the first plan for inoculating people incarcerated in Maine.

Maine reported 189 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. There were no additional deaths.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing on Tuesday that state officials are gearing up for a surge in doses to make sure they "drill the well before we get thirsty."

"We are asking (vaccination sites) 'Can you do more shots per day, can you add more vaccinators, can you operate with more hours per day, and days per week?'" Shah said. "It's going to be the dial we keep turning up. As we continue to do so, shots will be easier to find."

Two mass vaccination sites are opening this week, including at the Auburn Mall and the Piscataquis Ice Arena in Dover-Foxcroft. Already open are mass vaccination sites at the Portland Expo, Scarborough Downs, the former Marshalls in Sanford and the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

In addition to mass vaccination sites, the state also is looking at adding more lower-volume locations where people can get shots, such as independent pharmacies, more chain pharmacies and independent medical practices.

"We are adding more points of access," Shah said.

Through a federal program, vaccines are available at Walmart, Sam's Club, Walgreens and Hannaford, although through the end of March those doses are set aside for school staff. President Biden ordered states to prioritize school staff to encourage more in-person learning this spring.

When exactly supplies will surge is uncertain, but it will not be next week.

"Next week's vaccine supply will be very similar to this week's supply," Shah said.

Maine has received about 45,000 doses per week the last two weeks, lower than the 55,000 doses three weeks ago, shortly after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was approved, but still more than double the weekly supplies the state was receiving in early February.

Shah said it's unclear exactly when supplies will become much more plentiful, but he expects it to happen later this month or early in April, based on conversations he has had with federal officials. The Biden administration also has said that production of vaccines is ramping up.

Shah said that for now, Maine is sticking with a plan to vaccinate those 50 and older starting April 1, and then all other adult age groups starting May 1, following a directive from Biden last week ordering states to open up eligibility. Shah said the timeline for other age groups, such as 40 and older, could be moved up, but there are no plans to do so now because demand for vaccines remains strong.

Maine is now vaccinating those 60 and older.

The Maine Department of Corrections will start next week to vaccinate people in state prisons who are 60 years or older, a step that advocates have demanded for months. Guards were first eligible for shots in January, but earlier this month, state officials said incarcerated people who were eligible based on their age still could not get vaccines because there were too few doses to go around.

Correctional facilities across the country have been hotspots since the early days of the pandemic, and Maine's two largest outbreaks at single sites have been at a state prison and a county jail. Seven inmates and one employee at the Maine State Prison recently tested positive for the virus, the DOC said.

More than 1,660 adults are incarcerated in Maine's state prisons. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday that there are 150 inmates who are 60 or older. Another 1,300 inmates were held in county jails at the end of January, but the department did not say whether those people would start to get shots as well.

Tuesday's new case numbers reflect Maine's continuing trend of logging somewhat higher case counts when compared to two weeks — or one incubation period — ago.

The seven-day average of daily new cases was 191.3 on Tuesday, compared to 173 two weeks ago and 164.1 a month ago.

Maine is seeing a spike in cases in Kennebec County, where there are now 2.1 cases per 10,000 people on a seven-day average, an increase of 63 percent over the past week. Piscataquis County had the highest infection rate in Maine at 2.6 cases per 10,000 people, but rates there have declined 25 percent in the past week.

Shah said he's concerned about case counts in Piscataquis County, but so far there's no strong evidence of the reason for the spike there. He said epidemiologists are looking into ties with apartment complexes and restaurants, but have not found evidence of transmission caused by those locations.

"This serves as a reminder that we are not out of this. The virus is not done with us," Shah said.

Cumberland County is relatively stagnant, with 1.7 cases per 10,000 people, a 4 percent increase. York County also has 1.7 cases per 10,000 people, but has experienced a 23 percent increase in cases over the past week.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 47,388 positive cases of COVID-19, and 725 deaths.

Updated vaccinations for Tuesday were not available due to technical problems, but the latest immunization data shows 323,049 Maine people — representing 24 percent of the population — had received at least the first dose Monday.

The new mass vaccination site at the Auburn Mall, operated by Central Maine Healthcare, will open Wednesday. The site will operate on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will be able to handle 1,000 patients per day.

On Friday, the Piscataquis County Ice Arena in Dover-Foxcroft will open as a mass vaccination site, operated by Northern Light Health.

Currently, 86 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 26 in intensive care.

Staff Writer Megan Gray contributed to this report.