May 26—With more than half of Maine's population now vaccinated against COVID-19, demand for immunizations is slowing at the same time case counts continue on a steady downward trajectory.
Maine gave 63,082 shots during the past week, a decline of more than 4,600 doses compared to the previous week, when 67,753 doses were administered. In late April and early May, Maine was putting about 85,000 to 90,000 "shots in arms" on a weekly basis. But demand has dropped off now that those who were eager to get vaccinated have done so.
Nationally, daily doses have decreased from a high of more than 3 million on average in mid-April to about 1.7 million this week. Some southern states are struggling to rise above a vaccination rate of 30 percent.
Mass vaccination clinics in Maine — such as at Scarborough Downs, Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and the Portland Expo — have shut down or are shutting down as the state shifts its strategy to bring smaller immunization clinics to workplaces, churches, social clubs and schools.
Another strategy to boost immunization is Maine's incentive program, "Your Shot to Get Outdoors," which offers freebies such as Sea Dogs tickets, hunting and fishing licenses, and L.L. Bean gift cards to try to persuade people to get immunized. So far, 3,848 people have received an incentive.
Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner, said during a media briefing on Wednesday that the program will be evaluated after it ends Monday.
"We will take a good look to see what worked, how did it work, and should we continue to do it, or should we do something different?" Lambrew said, adding that Maine also has been examining what other states are doing, whether it's Ohio's $1 million lottery, or incentives in other states, such as tuition reimbursements, food and drink gifts or "straight-up cash."
"We are learning from all these states to see what, if anything, Maine should do next," she said.
Although Maine has one of the best vaccination rates in the country, the big unknown at this point is what the ceiling might be.
As of Wednesday, seven weeks after all Mainers over 16 became eligible, 67.5 percent of individuals in that group have had either a first dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or have gotten the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to data on the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. But there remains a big disparity between people over 50 and those in the 16-49 range.
Among those 50 and older, 80 percent have now had either a first dose of Pfizer or Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson. Many in that age group have been eligible for several months and that number hasn't moved much in weeks.
Among those 16-49, just 53.4 percent have gotten a first dose or the J&J option. Put another way, in seven weeks, nearly half of the people in that age group have not received a vaccine.
Maine reported 162 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, and one additional death.
While Wednesday's case count is somewhat higher than the previous two days, when the state reported cases under 100, it is still much lower than two weeks ago, when cases were routinely over 200 per day.
The seven-day average of daily new cases declined to 142.7 on Wednesday, compared to 225.6 a week ago and 360 a month ago. At the pandemic's peak in mid-January, cases soared to more than 600 per day, and during the spring surge in mid-April, seven-day averages were about 450.
Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 67,294 cases of COVID-19, and 825 deaths.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said on Wednesday that it's "undeniable" that the pandemic is easing in Maine, "largely as a result of vaccination efforts."
Cases are dropping across the country as well. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day average for new cases is just over 22,000, which is the lowest since last June. Some of that is a function of decreased testing, but it's still encouraging. The number of daily deaths from COVID-19, about 435 this week, also is the lowest since late March of 2020, not long after the pandemic had spread to most states.
Despite those positive trends, hospitalizations remain high in Maine. Currently, there are 118 people in the hospitals with COVID-19 and 43 people in intensive care. The number of hospitalizations hasn't fallen below 100 in more than a month and have been as high 134. Shah noted, however, that hospitalizations and deaths are often lagging indicators that tend to decrease a couple weeks or more after cases decline.
Businesses across the state were returning to near normalcy this week with no state-mandated masking, capacity limits or physical distancing requirements as of Monday. In another sign of how the landscape is changing for businesses and groups, the Mills administration this week officially "retired" the roughly two dozen checklists that provided COVID-19 prevention guidance to everything from restaurants and charter boats to churches and fitness centers.
With case numbers declining as vaccinations increase, Maine is preparing for a busy tourism season starting this weekend with the Memorial Day holiday, the traditional kickoff to the summer season.
Overall, 706,853 people in Maine had received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, representing 52.6 percent of the state's 1.3 million people. Also, 682,978, or 50.8 percent of the population, had gotten their final dose.