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Mar. 22—Vaccination sites were booking appointments to begin delivering shots to Maine residents aged 50 to 59 on Tuesday as the state enters the next phase of the COVID-19 inoculation campaign.
As of Monday morning, 27.2 percent of Maine residents had received at least one dose of vaccine and 16.3 percent had completed the full vaccination regimen. Hospitals and health care networks, meanwhile, were prepping to open their vaccination clinic doors to individuals in their 50s.
The expansion in Maine will happen one day after vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca released U.S. clinical trial results in what could be a first step toward federal approval of the drug. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said federal scientists will need to closely review the results but, if approved, AstraZeneca would add the arsenal against COVID-19.
"I think the AstraZeneca vaccine, if it becomes authorized here in the U.S., will be a really helpful and needed part of the armament here," Shah said on the Maine Calling radio program.
Roughly 165,000 Maine residents will become newly eligible for vaccination as of Tuesday when the minimum age drops to 50. About 32,000 individuals within that age group have already received shots under previous eligibility categories, such as health care or public safety workers.
The state's largest health care provider, MaineHealth, had already scheduled nearly 11,000 appointments between Tuesday and April 2 just from the individuals within that age group who were already on MaineHealth's waitlist. Officials said they are hoping to expand clinic offerings once vaccine supplies permit.
"Our limiting factor continues to be vaccine allocation as we are currently able to provide 30,000 vaccinations a week across the MaineHealth system," MaineHealth said in a statement. MaineHealth was slated to receive roughly 11,000 initial doses this week (plus separate shipments for second doses) for mass-vaccination clinics at Scarborough Downs, at a former retail store in Sanford and at clinics operated by regional regional hospitals.
Northern Light Health, which operates mass-vaccination clinics in Bangor and Portland as well as at regional hospitals, did not begin accepting reservations for Mainers aged 50 to 59 until Monday at 2 p.m. A company spokesman said the company had capacity to deliver roughly 8,000 first doses across its network this week but that most of those spots were filled prior to Monday afternoon.
Unlike MaineHealth, Northern Light does not maintain a waiting list but only makes vaccination appointments for eligible individuals as spots become available. As a result, interested individuals must either make appointments online or by calling 207-204-8551.
"Northern Light Health lowered the age requirement restriction on the website to 50 years of age or older to coincide with today's 2 pm appointment release," spokesman Andrew Soucier said in a statement. "We took this approach so that individuals who were 50-59 years of age would not sign up to be vaccinated prior to the March 23 date set by the state."
Gov. Janet Mills and state health officials also announced on Friday that the expansion was made possible by the combination of available appointments within the current system and projected increases in vaccine supplies over the coming weeks. Mills also announced that all residents age 16 and older will be eligible on April 19.
As of Monday, 66 percent of the nearly 400,000 residents age 60 or older in Maine had received at least one shot of vaccine. That figure varies dramatically by region, however, with 77 percent of Cumberland County residents age 60+ getting at least one shot but only 49 percent of Somerset County residents within the same age group.
Asked on Monday if Maine CDC could bump up that April 19 timeline, Shah said it all depends on vaccine supplies from the federal government and vaccination capacity in the state. Maine expected to see a modest increase in shipments this week but Shah said indications are deliveries will increase significantly either next week or during the first week of April.
"Generally what we've seen is that slots open up and then they get snapped up," Shah said. "As we expand to the group with those 50 and over — a group with nearly 200,000 people in it — we expect demand to be robust for the first few weeks. If we see that tail off and if we start seeing open slots again, we will evaluate that as we are thinking about the next group."
The eligibility expansion also comes at a time when Maine continues to see elevated numbers of new cases.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 178 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday but no additional deaths. Maine's seven-day rolling average of new cases stood at 207 on Monday after rising above 200 last week for the first time in more than a month. While the 178 new cases reported Monday represented a decline from numbers late last week, case reports often sag on weekends because of lower testing volumes.
Daily case numbers in Maine have been consistently hovering around the 200-mark for several weeks after declining to dipping to around 140 in mid-February. While current numbers are still well below the all-time peak of 600-plus daily cases in mid-January, Shah said Monday that the numbers are "higher than we would want them to be, by all means."
Shah said seasonal variation as well as people "coming out of their winter shells" could be factors. The presence of new variants of COVID-19 in Maine could also be bumping up case numbers, he said.
But Shah noted that Maine has not experienced a COVID-related death in a nursing home or other congregate care setting in more than a month, which he attributed to the state's focus on vaccinating those communities as well as other Mainers over age 60.
"The number of deaths has come down quite significantly," Shah said on the program. "Because of the strategy to vaccinate older Mainers, we can go sometimes several days . . . before a single death is reported to us."
At least 729 deaths have been linked to COVID-19 in Maine. To date, the Maine CDC has tracked a total of 48,642 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the state roughly one year ago.
There were 72 people in Maine hospitals with COVID-19 on Monday, including 23 in critical care beds and 12 on ventilators.