Jun. 2—In a tent outside of Becky's Diner on a sunny Wednesday morning, people trickled in for something not found on the menu with the coffee and egg sandwiches at the landmark Portland restaurant: A COVID-19 vaccination.
"This is such a big relief," said Nichole White, 40, of Westbrook, shortly after receiving her shot of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. White said she's looking forward to more normal activities this summer, like traveling and birthday parties, after more than a year of pandemic socially distant living.
The walk-in clinic, operated by MaineHealth, returns to Becky's Diner on Thursday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. People who get their shots also receive a $15 gift card to the diner.
The clinic is part of a relatively new approach to vaccinations in Maine, which has moved from mass immunization centers to smaller and more convenient locations. The numbers of people getting immunized at the diner on Wednesday were not anywhere close to the throughput at mass vaccination clinics launched months ago at places like the Portland Expo and Scarborough Downs, which have since closed. Instead of vaccinating thousands per day, a pop-up clinic like the one at Becky's will immunize dozens in a few hours of operation. On Wednesday, the site immunized 76 people.
But the emphasis has shifted — now that demand has dropped off — from how many people can get vaccinated at a location to what populations are gaining access to the vaccine, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and one of the vaccinators at Becky's Diner on Wednesday.
Mills said all types of people are getting vaccinated at pop-up clinics, such as younger people who may have been less fearful of contracting COVID-19, those who were previously hesitant about the vaccines and people who are busy and had a difficult time scheduling an appointment.
"We've seen a lot of younger people. We had a busload of seasonal workers this morning. " said Mills, referring to a bus full of camp counselors who showed up for their shots. "We got the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, at the mass vaccination clinics. It's not about the numbers as much anymore. Every person we vaccinate is a potential chain of transmission we cut off."
Maine's COVID-19 cases have plummeted in recent weeks, with the seven-day average on Wednesday at 86, the lowest since November 1, according to state statistics. Vaccinations are driving down case counts, and Maine has one of the best immunization rates in the country, with 52.4 percent of the state's 1.3 million population having received their final dose.
Other pop-up vaccination clinics will open soon to try get the shots closer to where people work and have fun, such as 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 10-13 at Rising Tide Brewing in Portland and from 8-11 p.m. on July 7 and July 12 at the Portland House of Music.
Zack Rand, general manager of Becky's Diner, said the restaurant's diverse customer base made it a good location for a clinic to attract people who may not have gotten their shots at a mass immunization facility.
"When we heard about this we thought we would love to be a small part of the vaccination effort," Rand said. "It was the right thing to do."
Sean Edwards, 55, of Bridgton, who works on the manufacturing side of the radio business, said he has been busy with work, and so the "one and done" nature of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was appealing. The other two vaccines available — Pfizer and Moderna — require booster shots three and four weeks after the first dose.
"Weeks would pass and I would remind myself, I really have to get this (vaccination) done," Edwards said. He said his human resources department at work told him about the diner event, spurring him to travel to Portland for the shot. He said he needs to travel to Florida for work soon, and so getting the shot completed was important.
Keith Herbert, 55, of North Berwick, said he had previously been hesitant about the vaccine but was ready for his shot on Wednesday.
"I feel safe getting (the shot) now that this has been going on for a while," Herbert said, referring to how immunizations have been ongoing since December. The vaccines have been overwhelmingly safe and effective at preventing illness and transmission of the disease.
And Sean Hennessy, 59, a commercial fisherman from Bath who is often in Portland for business, said he has gone to Becky's Diner for decades, so he was comfortable coming to the waterfront for his shot. Hennessy said he wasn't ready for his shot a couple months ago, but it was time to get it over with on Wednesday.
He said with the mask mandate repealed, and seeing more people without masks, it made him realize that he wasn't as protected from COVID-19, and getting the vaccine would provide good protection.
"With people without their masks and me not having the vaccine (before Wednesday), it just made me feel more susceptible to getting the virus," Hennessy said. "I had my shot, and it's one and done."