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Feb. 23—Maine's publicly released COVID-19 vaccination plan is more vague than other New England states about the future rollout of the program this spring.
For instance, Connecticut released a plan on Tuesday that delineates when people in certain age and work categories will be eligible to receive their shots, with teachers and those 55 and older becoming eligible March 1. The plan also details when other age groups become eligible, down to the last age group of 16-34 year-olds, who will be able to start making appointments May 3.
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire also have released more detailed plans about the next steps in the vaccine process than Maine, which has moved into Phase 1B and is currently vaccinating those 70 and older. The state is likely to move on to the 65-69 age group as early as next week, but officials have not released specific plans on what would happen after that even as pressure mounts from teachers and other frontline workers.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during Tuesday's media briefing that he's "naturally cautious" about releasing future plans, and doesn't want to make announcements on what the vaccination program might look like this spring without being certain the state can deliver on its promises. Vaccine supplies are increasing, but there's still uncertainty on what the shipments from the federal government will be later in March, April and May.
"I recognize fully that it means a lot of folks are left feeling like they don't know where their spot in line is. I acknowledge that," Shah said. "When I know something to be the case, that's when I'm ready to talk about it and double down on it. If I don't know with certainty, than I'm really hesitant and gun-shy on making promises I can't keep."
Aside from Connecticut, Massachusetts lists what groups are next in line to get vaccinated and roughly when those vaccinations will start. Rhode Island is taking mostly an age-based approach, and lists estimates for when younger people will receive the vaccine, such as those in their 50s in April or early May, in their 40s in late May and into June and by July for people younger than 40. New Hampshire health officials have said they will begin vaccinating teachers and child care workers by the end of March.
Maine officials, though, have been relatively tight-lipped, including not saying when teachers will be in line for vaccination, or saying which groups of frontline essential workers would be next. Those essential workers could be teachers, child care workers, agriculture workers, transportation employees, postal service employees and grocery store clerks, but Maine has not prioritized which groups would get the vaccines first.
Also in line for vaccination in Maine would be those with high-risk health conditions, but those conditions haven't been spelled out. The Maine plan does say the high-risk groups is slated to be immunized after those in the 65-69 age group, but does not estimate when.
Shah said there are currently many internal discussions about the next steps, including teachers.
"I don't know that we've landed on any particular strategy," Shah said when asked about teachers. Some states, including Florida and West Virginia, are prioritizing teachers age 50 and older. "No final decisions have been made. It's under discussion."
Meanwhile, Maine health officials reported 142 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and two additional deaths, as a major pharmacy chain prepares to join the vaccination effort.
Walgreens is now accepting vaccination appointments this week in Maine and 22 other states as part of a partnership with the federal government. Walmart and Sam's Club pharmacies have already been immunizing residents. To check about making an appointment at Walgreens, go to Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine.
For now, appointments are for those 70 and older, although that is expected to change soon, perhaps as soon as next week. Maine officials have said in early March, those in the 65-to-69 age group likely will start getting vaccinated.
To date, Maine has administered 301,705 shots, including 202,761 first doses and 98,944 second doses. Slightly more than 15 percent of Maine's 1.3 million population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and about 7.4 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.
Overall, Maine has recorded 43,736 cases of COVID-19 and 660 deaths. Maine Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday ordered flags to be lowered to half staff through Friday to honor the 500,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Despite the grim milestone, recent trends continue to be positive, with the seven-day average of daily new cases at 140.1 on Tuesday, compared to 164.7 a week ago and 484.6 a month ago. The seven-day averages now are similar to early November, prior to the winter surge that resulted in peaks of more than 600 cases daily in mid-January. Currently, there are 67 hospitalized in Maine, including 25 in intensive care. At its peak in mid-January, 207 people were hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19.
While the state is still constrained by vaccine supplies, shipments have increased, with Maine receiving about 36,000 doses this week when combining the state vaccination program with shots being offered at Walmart, Sam's Club and Walgreens. That's about double the weekly doses Maine was receiving a few week ago.
Even more vaccines could soon be coming Maine's way. Johnson & Johnson is on the cusp of an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, with approval possible later this week.
Company officials on Tuesday said they will be able to deliver 20 million doses by the end of March. If those timelines are met, Maine could soon receive an additional 10,000 or more doses per week from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine would only require one dose, in comparison to the two doses needed for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines currently in use. The Biden administration is expected to ramp up shipments in the coming weeks, and some national public health experts have predicted a near-doubling of weekly vaccine shipments in the United States by the end of March, only taking into account for Moderna and Pfizer production increases, and not yet including Johnson & Johnson supplies.