With more Mainers eligible for vaccine, state gets ready for influx of doses

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Joe Lawlor, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Mar. 25—Maine reported 218 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, as the state prepares for larger vaccine shipments to support expanded eligibility. There were no additional deaths.

Those 50 and older became eligible this week to receive COVID-19 immunizations, while vaccine supplies are expected to increase by 28 percent next week. Mainers age 16 and older will become eligible April 19, although that timeline could be moved up depending on supply and demand for vaccine.

Community health centers may soon take on a greater role in vaccinating the public, but so far doses are not ramping up to the clinics. The Biden administration is sending additional funds to the community health clinics for vaccinations and expanding eligibility, although details are scarce.

Also, vaccine supply increases over the next few weeks are expected to come from the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while Moderna and Pfizer supplies may be stagnant or even slightly decline.

The federal government will ship 45,200 vaccine doses to Maine next week, up from the 35,190 doses this week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of the vaccine increase is due to a boost in supplies from the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which went from 1,600 doses this week to 8,100 doses for next week. Maine also is receiving 23,400 doses of Pfizer and 13,700 doses of Moderna vaccines next week.

"What we are seeing is the bouncing back of the supply (of Johnson & Johnson vaccine) after having cleared out the cupboards," said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He said supplies of the vaccine had to be replenished by increasing production shortly after the vaccine was approved for use by federal regulators. "We've been told the largest increases to our vaccine supply over the next three weeks or so will come from J&J."

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is more flexible because it is one shot and doesn't require the cold storage as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. That allows the J&J vaccine to be used in more rural areas and targeted to seniors who are homebound. So Shah said hospitals in Millinocket and Skowhegan and other rural health care providers will be more likely to receive the J&J vaccine when supplies increase.

Daily COVID-19 cases remain at about 200 per day on a seven-day average, far lower than the mid-January peak of more than 600 per day, but an increase from the 150-per-day average of daily cases in mid-February. The Mills administration is continuing with reopening plans, including allowing bars and tasting rooms to open on Friday, and increasing limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Shah said Maine has gone more than 30 days without a death in a long-term care facility. Nursing homes and assisted living centers were among the first to receive the vaccines, along with health care workers, when vaccinations began in late December.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that federally-funded community health centers would be "invited" to expand eligibility to frontline essential workers and those with high-risk health conditions. Maine is currently taking a strictly age-based approach to vaccinations, but the Biden administration has stepped in with exceptions, including directing vaccinations in the federal retail pharmacy program to school staff through March 31.

Shah said he does not know whether the expanded eligibility will be a mandate or a recommendation, or to what extent more vaccine doses will flow to the community health centers.

Bryan Wyatt, director of policy and communications for the Maine Primary Care Association, which represents 29 community health centers in Maine, said their group heard the news on Thursday and are meeting to discuss the new federal policy.

"Regardless of the news this morning, Maine's health centers remain severely supply constrained as they are consistently only getting around 1,000 doses per week from the state. The reality is our health centers are doing everything they can, with what they are given, but stand ready and willing to do more should their portion of the state's allocation be increased," Wyatt said in a statement.

Eighteen community health centers in Maine will be receiving a total of $41 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan, according to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. The funding will be used to support vaccination efforts and primary and preventive care. The distributions include $10.6 million for Penobscot Community Health Center in Bangor and $2.5 million for Portland Community Health Center.

Pingree voted in favor of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, along with U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Voting "no" were U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District.

As of Thursday, Maine is reporting 387,648 people have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, representing 28.8 percent of the state's 1.3 million population. Also, 235,740 people, representing 17.5 percent of the population, have received their final dose.

Of those between 50 and 59 who became eligible starting on Tuesday, 40,538 of the 194,000 — 21 percent — in that age group have received at least their first shot, although some would have gotten their shot before this week if they qualified as school staff, health care workers or others who were given vaccine priority. More than 271,000 of the 394,000 Mainers who are ages 60 and older have received at least the first dose, representing 68 percent of that age group.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 49,190 positive cases of COVID-19, and 731 deaths.

Currently, there are 78 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 30 in intensive care.