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Apr. 29—The state's public health director offered his strongest and most direct plea Thursday to young people about getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
"If you're on the younger side and you're watching today and unsure about getting a vaccine, I'm here to tell you: You should get the shot," Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said at a media briefing. "We're doing everything we can to make getting a shot the easy choice."
Indeed, more and more vaccination sites have started offering walk-in availability and later hours to entice people.
Meanwhile, the state reported 254 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. It marked the fourth time in five days that cases have been below 300. While Shah said the recent decline is good news, he cautioned that hospitalizations remain high and people are still dying, even young people. The state is still averaging more than one death per day over the last month and of the four additional deaths reported Thursday, one person was in their 20s and another was in their 40s.
Shah said those deaths are a "stark and sad reminder," that COVID-19 is still circulating widely among a younger population that lags behind older Mainers in rate of vaccination. Of the new cases reported Thursday, 161 or 63 percent, were in people under 40.
Shah also said the vaccines offer the best protection against the many variants that have emerged and that will continue to emerge as long a large percentage of the population remains unvaccinated. He couldn't say whether the recent deaths were attributable to any variants but said there is no question variants have been proven in other countries to be more highly transmissible and, in some cases, more deadly.
The seven-day daily case average now stands at 297, which is down from 423 two weeks ago but still up from 198 cases on average one month ago, according to data tracked by CDC. Since the pandemic began, there have been 60,945 confirmed or probable cases and 782 people have died.
Androscoggin County continues to be an area of concern and Shah said it appears much of the transmission there is happening in "non-public settings." Over the last two weeks, there have been 90 cases per 10,000 people reported in Androscoggin County, compared to 38 per 10,000 people statewide.
As of Thursday, there were 125 individuals in the hospital with COVID-19, which is the most since February 8. Of those, 46 are in critical care and 15 on a ventilator. There have been at least 110 people hospitalized with COVID-19 for the last nine days. Throughout all of March and the first week of April, daily hospitalizations were remarkably steady, averaging in the low 70s. In all, 1,840 people have been hospitalized at some point during the pandemic.
The decline in new cases over the last couple weeks may well be short-lived. Last week was April vacation for families of school-aged children and throughout the pandemic there have been case spikes following school vacation weeks or holiday breaks. And even though cases are falling in Maine, the state still ranks 9th for seven-day daily case rate per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. CDC.
Shah said his team will monitor any possible spikes that might arise from travel associated with April vacation, but said there is still time to mitigate some of that risk.
"The way we do that is through widespread or blanketed testing," he said.
Meanwhile, vaccinations continue at a steady clip, albeit at a slower pace than three weeks ago, shortly after all individuals over the age of 16 became eligible. The daily average this week is just over 12,000, according to the CDC. Last week, the daily average was about 14,500 shots.
As of Thursday, Maine had administered 1,128,389 shots since vaccinations began in December. Of those, 626,667 have been first doses, representing 46.6 percent of the population, and 501,726 have been final doses, covering 37.3 percent of residents. Five counties — Knox, Cumberland, Lincoln, Hancock and Washington — have gone above 40 percent fully vaccinated, while five others — Oxford, Androscoggin, Somerset, Franklin and Kennebec — are still below 35 percent.
Among all Maine residents 60 or older, who are at highest risk of serious illness or death, 77.8 percent are fully vaccinated. On the younger end, in the three weeks since those between the ages of 16-49 became eligible, just under 40 percent have gotten at least one dose.
Maine continues to lead the nation in percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated, according to Bloomberg. In fact, five of the top seven states are in New England.
In an effort to reach younger individuals, and in response to sagging demand, vaccine providers are increasingly starting to offer more walk-in options in an effort to entice younger populations. MaineHealth announced this week that several of its sites will offer no-appointment vaccinations beginning next week, including Scarborough Downs. The site in Sanford at the former Marshall's department store started welcoming walk-ins this week.
Northern Light Health started offering walk-in availability this week at the Portland Expo and at the former Pier 1 at the Maine Mall in South Portland. Those are likely to continue next week.
Additionally, a mobile vaccination site run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency wrapped up a five-day stop in Biddeford on Wednesday. The site administered 2,277 shots and roughly half of them were individuals who didn't have an appointment.
The mobile clinic will set up and reopen Friday at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds, where walk-ins will be welcome, and will remain there through Monday. Oxford County has the second-lowest vaccination rate of any county. After Fryeburg, the mobile site will move to Turner in Androscoggin County, which has the state's lowest vaccination rate and also the biggest share of new COVID-19 cases.
Asked about how the state can persuade more people to get vaccinated, Shah said officials are still discussing possible incentives. West Virginia announced this week that it would offer $100 savings bonds to individuals.
"I think it's important to make the case for getting the vaccine on its own merits," he said. "It not only keeps you safe from getting COVID, it keeps people in your community, people in your life, safe from getting COVID."
Still, as Maine looks to keep momentum going on vaccinations, the number of doses coming in next week is expected to decrease. According to allotments posted this week by the U.S. CDC, Maine is projected to get 39,660 doses of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine, down nearly 40 percent from 52,660 doses this week.
The state also will receive additional doses that are sent directly to retail pharmacies and federally qualified health centers, but those totals won't be known until the weekend. This week, Maine received 14,020 doses for those two programs.
If supply holds up, Shah predicted that Maine could reach the milestone of two-thirds of the eligible population vaccinated by Memorial Day, but said the bigger goal is to get to 75-85 percent coverage, which experts believe will achieve herd immunity.