Apr. 28—More and more walk-in vaccination options are opening up in Maine at the same time new COVID-19 cases are starting to come back down, two developments that — taken together — offer hope that the current surge is abating.
The increasing availability of walk-in appointments also reflects a waning of demand for vaccines now that the most eager have rolled up their sleeves. Daily shots have decreased by about 40 percent from the peak average two weeks ago — partly as a result of the pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Northern Light Health opened its Portland Expo site and the former Pier 1 store at the Maine Mall to walk-ins Wednesday and will continue offering shots to those without appointments the rest of the week. The Expo site administered 1,518 shots on Wednesday, 144 of which were walk-ins.
MaineHealth, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that it would open its mass vaccination site at Scarborough Downs next Monday and Tuesday to walk-ins, and will soon offer that option at five other sites, in Belfast, Rockland, Boothbay Harbor, Norway and Sanford.
The health care organization already has been allowing walk-ins at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington and will open its site at the former Marshall's store in Sanford beginning Thursday.
"Vaccination is the most important step everyone can take to keep themselves, their families and their communities healthy," Dr. Joel Botler, Maine Medical Center's chief medical officer, said in a statement. "Our amazing team of health care professionals and wonderful volunteers is ready to help people take that step — and we are pleased to offer safe and easy walk-in vaccinations at Scarborough Downs."
A vaccine clinic at the Westbrook Community Center on Bridge Street also opened to those without appointments on Wednesday.
And interest has been strong all week at the FEMA-run mobile vaccination site currently set up in Biddeford that has been allowing walk-ins. Through Wednesday, 2,227 shots were adminstered over five days and just over 50 percent were walk-in patients. That clinic will move to the Fryeburg Fairgrounds beginning Friday, where walk-ins also will be welcome.
Meanwhile, state health officials reported 261 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, along with one additional death. It's the third time in the last four days new cases have dipped below 300.
The seven-day daily case average now stands at 318, which is a decrease from 442 one week ago but still up considerably from 198 cases this time last month. Since the pandemic reached Maine, there have been 60,691 confirmed or probable cases and 778 deaths from COVID-19, according to data tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the decrease in cases, hospitalizations remain high, even as the state has now vaccinated more than three-quarters of residents over the age of 60. As of Wednesday, there were 117 individuals in the hospital with COVID-19, including 46 in critical care and 14 on a ventilator.
There have been at least 110 people in the hospital every day for the last week. Prior to April 15, Maine went 59 days with daily hospitalizations below 100, bottoming out at 62 on March 1. In all, 1,829 people have been hospitalized at some point.
As more sites transition to smaller volume and convenience, some larger sites are getting ready to phase out. Northern Light Health said it plans to close its mass vaccination site at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in late May. MaineHealth officials said they have no plans to close Scarborough Downs at this time.
Since vaccinations began in December, Maine has administered 1,111,673 shots. Of those, 620,926 have been first shots, accounting for 46.2 percent of the state's population, and 490,747 have been final shots, accounting for 36.5 percent of residents. Among Mainers over the age of 60, who are most at risk of serious illness or dying from COVID-19, 77 percent are fully vaccinated.
Vaccinations have slowed a bit, though, since peaking shortly after Maine opened eligibility to all adults on April 7. Part of that has been attributable to the pause in administration of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but there are also signs that demand is waning somewhat, which is part of the reason sites are accepting walk-ins.
Over the last seven days (not including Sundays), Maine has averaged 14,039 shots per day. That's down from 15,203 shots on average over the previous seven-day period, and down from 19,543 daily shots the week before that.
Maine also is expected to see a drop-off in doses coming into the state next week. According to allotments from the U.S. CDC, Maine will be eligible to receive a total of 39,660 doses, down from 52,660 this week. The allotment figure could change, however, as Maine learned last week that it was eligible for additional Moderna doses after the allotments were posted by the CDC.
The state will also 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.
Still, Maine leads all states in percentage of population fully vaccinated, according to a tracker by Bloomberg, although some counties are faring better than others. Cumberland, Lincoln and Knox counties all have vaccination rates above 40 percent, while Androscoggin and Oxford counties are stuck at 30 percent.
In other news, Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday eased the state's mask mandate outdoors, following updated guidance from the U.S. CDC. Effective immediately, people who have been vaccinated or unvaccinated do not need to be masked outdoors unless they are in large groups. The federal guidance said only vaccinated people don't need to wear masks outside, but Maine is going further by ending masking requirements outdoors for all people, whether vaccinated or not.
The mandate for indoor businesses and gatherings remains.
"Scientific studies continue to show that outdoor activities are much safer than indoor ones," Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement. "As more Maine people become vaccinated against COVID-19, outdoor activities become that much safer."
On Wednesday, the Maine Principals Association followed suit by updating its guidelines for school sports. Students no longer must wear masks outdoors during practices and competitions.
The state also announced Tuesday a new testing partnership with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks to offer pooled students for staff and students of public schools. The initiative, which will launch in May, will offer any school district the option to provide free weekly pooled testing. Swab samples are collected from selected students and staff, combined, and then tested as one sample.
"Testing for COVID-19 remains critical to identifying infected individuals early, often before symptoms appear, and limiting outbreaks," Maine health commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. "Under this partnership, schools will have another tool to help keep transmission rates relatively low and continue welcoming children into classrooms safely this spring, summer, and fall."
The current case rate in schools is the highest it's been since December, although still below the rate among the general population.