Maine's vaccine supplies to tighten as eligibility widens to all adults

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Joe Lawlor, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Apr. 8—Just as eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations opened up this week to about 470,000 Mainers age 16 and older, vaccine supplies are expected to tighten significantly next week after experiencing a one-week surge in doses.

Federal officials have told the state to expect a reduction in Johnson & Johnson shipments to the federal retail pharmacy program, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday.

That's in addition to a decline of 18,100 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week to the state's vaccination program. The size of the drop in the federal retail pharmacy program won't be known until this weekend.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is slated to receive 36,690 doses of all vaccines next week. That's down from 54,790 this week and will be the state's lowest weekly total in a month. The Pfizer and Moderna allocations will not change, but the Johnson & Johnson total decreased from 20,600 doses this week to 2,500 doses next week.

"J&J supply is going to fluctuate. It has been fluctuating and will continue to fluctuate," Shah said. "More folks want the vaccine than what we have right now."

The Johnson & Johnson supply reduction also means that for next week, doses set aside for independent pharmacies and independent physicians will be down substantially. Independent pharmacies will see allotments from the state vaccination program drop from 3,700 this week to 400 next week, while doses to independent family practices declined from 400 this week to zero next week.

The bulk of next week's allocations in the state program, 30,520 of the 36,690, will go to hospital networks like Northern Light Health and MaineHealth. Hospital systems operate the mass vaccination sites, including at the Portland Expo, Scarborough Downs, Auburn Mall, Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and the former Marshalls in Sanford.

This week has been the biggest week yet for vaccinations, with more than 91,000 doses available through the state program, pharmacies and community health clinics, as the state expanded eligibility Wednesday to include everyone age 16 and older.

Shah said in a tweet that Wednesday's vaccination effort was "a strong showing for COVID-19 vaccination in Maine yesterday, (with) 26,434 doses administered statewide, surpassing our prior one-day total."

Shah said he doesn't know why Johnson & Johnson supplies are declining next week. He said he has asked federal officials, but not gotten any answers about what is happening to supplies, except that he was told Johnson & Johnson supplies would rebound later this month.

The dropoff is not related to manufacturing problems at a plant in Baltimore that was preparing to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and resulted in 15 million spoiled doses, said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a public health emergency preparedness expert at Harvard University.

Piltch-Loeb said those 15 million doses — which were spoiled last week — were slated to be used months from now, and that all J&J supplies to the United States in the coming weeks are coming from manufacturing plants in Europe.

The Biden administration has prioritized the federal retail pharmacy program and a large number of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson doses are being directed there. This week, Maine received 34,190 doses for the retail pharmacy program, including 21,100 of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It won't be known until the weekend how many doses Maine will receive through the federal partnership, which includes pharmacies at Walgreens, Walmart, Sam's Club, Shaw's, Hannaford and a number of independent pharmacies.

Meanwhile, Maine reported 319 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and one additional death,

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 52,996 cases of COVID-19, and 748 deaths. With cases on the rise, Maine is racing to vaccinate people as quickly as possible, to try to avoid a huge surge in cases. Through Thursday, Maine has given 483,293 people at least one shot of the vaccine, representing 35.95 percent of the state's 1.3 million population, while 340,301, or 25.3 percent of the population, have received their final dose.

New COVID-19 cases continue to be largely driven by people under age 30, according to state statistics. On Thursday, 162 of the 319 new cases, or 51 percent, were detected in people under age 30, including 102, or 32 percent, under age 20.

"I know it's sunny outside, and with vaccinations we may think the virus is behind us, but we are not out of the woods," Shah said.

There were 78 people with COVID-19 hospitalized in Maine on Thursday, including 30 in critical care beds and 10 on ventilators, according to Maine CDC data.

The Mills administration announced this week that it would conduct several mobile vaccination clinics in an effort to reach underserved communities in rural Maine. The first clinic will be at Oxford Casino from April 12-16, while others will follow in locations across the state, including Fryeburg, Turner, Old Town, Calais and Madawaska. Appointments are required and the clinics are expected to administer 250 shots per day of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Shah said despite the decline in Johnson & Johnson doses, the mobile vaccine clinics will continue as scheduled.

He also said on Tuesday that Mainers "should not wait" on the state vaccination website, www.vaccinateme.maine.gov to schedule an appointment if they can get one with another provider, such as Northern Light Health or MaineHealth or a retail drug store. As of Tuesday, about 90,000 Maine people had pre-registered on the vaccinateme.maine.gov website, but only a few providers were using it to schedule appointments.