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Feb. 18—Maine will receive about 13 percent more vaccine doses next week as it continues to inoculate as many older residents as possible amid a promising trend of declining case numbers and hospitalizations.
According to state health officials, 27,740 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine are scheduled to arrive in the state for use next week. That's 5,265 more doses than the current week, although the net increase will be 3,510 doses. The difference reflects a change in the federal government's accounting of Pfizer vaccine, which has consistently contained six, not five, doses in each vial.
As in past weeks, the majority of doses (87 percent) will go to hospitals and health care organizations. The rest will go to independent pharmacies and some smaller health care practices. Next week's doses will be supplemented by at least 4,300 doses distributed directly to 24 Walmart and Sam's Club pharmacies in Maine through a federal partnership, as well as another 4,800 doses to an additional pharmacy chain and a to-be-determined number of doses to at least one federally qualified health center. Those details have not been finalized.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah also said Thursday that the state has redirected 3,900 doses of Pfizer vaccine that had been sitting unused at a CVS pharmacy warehouse. CVS and Walgreens have been holding vaccine clinics for staff and residents of long-term care facilities, but the state has several times taken unused doses from those chains and diverted them elsewhere.
"We want every single dose allocated to the state ... made available to Maine people as quickly as possible," Shah said.
So far, 185,906 Mainers have received their first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, about 14 percent of the state's population, and 80,085 people have received both doses, or roughly 6 percent. According to vaccine tracking by Bloomberg, Maine has the nation's sixth-highest vaccination rate with 13.2 percent of residents receiving at least one shot, slightly above the national average of 12.2 percent.
Maine is currently in Phase 1B of its vaccination plan focused on individuals age 70 and above and is expected to begin offering vaccines to 65- to 69-year-olds next month. So far, 44 percent of Maine's 193,000 residents age 70 or older have gotten at least one shot and 7 percent have gotten both. There are an additional 92,000 people in the 65-69 age range.
"Our goal for next week is that the majority of Mainers 70 and older will have received their first dose," Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. "By maximizing vaccination at large sites while supporting local coalitions to vaccinate hard-to-reach residents, Maine can achieve that goal."
One of those large-scale sites, the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, has several appointments available over the next several days and Shah encouraged anyone for whom traveling to Bangor is an option to contact Northern Light Health, which is conducting that clinic.
Northern Light also announced Thursday that it plans to open a vaccination site at the Portland Expo on March 2, which will offer offer appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"This has truly been a collaborative effort with our community, and we couldn't be more appreciative of the great work that has gone into the planning of this vaccination site," said Melissa Skahan, Northern Light Mercy Hospital vice president and local vaccination site operations lead. "The Expo offers the benefits of both square footage for the clinic space as well as a great location, with access to public transportation and onsite parking."
MaineHealth has been conducting a mass vaccination clinic at the former Scarborough Downs over the last two weeks.
The additional vaccine doses come as Maine has seen its rate of new cases of COVID-19 fall, although the 218 cases reported Thursday represented a slight uptick. It's the first time new cases have gone above 200 in six days. On Wednesday, there were 104 new cases reported and on Tuesday, just 91, which marked the first time since early November that new cases dipped below 100. Despite Thursday's increase, the 7-day daily average of new cases sits at 150, which is down from 297 two weeks ago and from 609 this time last month.
In all, there have been 43,090 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic hit last March, and 655 people have died with the virus, according to data kept by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. One additional death was reported Thursday, a man in his 40s from Cumberland County.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine fell to 89 on Thursday, the lowest total since Nov. 21. Of those, 27 were in critical care and nine were on a ventilator. At peak, there were 207 people in the hospital with COVID-19 a litte more than one month ago. The highest number of critical care patients in Maine was 71 on Jan. 20.
Nationally, cases also have been plummeting, with the 7-day average of new cases at about 81,000 on Feb. 16, compared to a peak of about 250,000 in mid-January, according to the U.S. CDC. Hospitalizations across the country are about half what they were last month.
Shah said it's likely too early to attribute the decrease to vaccinations but said it's certainly possible.
As Maine continues vaccinating individuals at an increased rate, there have been questions about whether health care organizations are properly following CDC guidelines. The Maine Attorney General's Office issued a warning this week that it would consider legal and administrative action against health care providers who give shots to those who don't meet the state's eligibility criteria. The warning came after reports that some health care providers have given vaccine shots to wealthy donors, some of the providers' employees and to out-of-state contractors, in violation of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention's rules on who is eligible for vaccinations.
Shah was asked about a report this week that an ambulance service in Oxford County offered soon-to-be expired vaccines to local school employees, which would have violated CDC guidelines. Those doses were instead sent to Rumford Hospital after the Maine CDC intervened, the Rumford Falls Times reported.
Shah said instances like these have not been commonplace during the first 10 weeks of vaccinations in Maine. He said vaccinators should be following guidelines but they also need flexibility, especially once a vial of vaccines is opened because it expires.
"Our overarching principle is that no dose should go to waste," he said.
Despite Maine's improving numbers and increased inoculations, there are still some areas of concern — the biggest of which is the arrival of a new and more contagious COVID-19 variant known as B.1.1.7, which was first documented in the United Kingdom. Maine has now detected two cases, one in Franklin County, the other in York County. There is no known link between those two cases.
Nationwide, there were 1,277 cases of the U.K. variant across 42 states as of Tuesday, as well as more than 20 cases of two other COVID-19 variants first documented in South Africa and Brazil. Although researchers are concerned about the variants, it is believed that the approved vaccines protect against those as well.