Vaccines for pre-schoolers expected to be available in Maine early next week

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Jun. 17—Mollie Barnathan feels she has done everything she could to protect her three children from COVID during more than two years of pandemic, but there was one step she was unable to take — get her three-year-old daughter vaccinated against the virus.

The Portland woman's two older children, seven and five years old, got their shots when they became available to their age group, but federal officials hadn't approved vaccines for younger children — until this week.

Two vaccines for children six months old to five years old are expected to get a final OK Saturday and will be available in Maine next week.

It can't come too soon for Barnathan, who said she kept her two oldest children from getting too close to their younger sister out of concern that they would bring the virus home from school. She also limited playdates for her youngest daughter and even cancelled a visit with grandparents after they were exposed to someone with the virus.

"We've just been plowing through (home) tests like crazy," she said. "It felt like we were doing everything we can be doing, but there's one more hurdle that would make us feel so much more secure."

Health care providers will start giving the shots next week. The Maine Center for Disease Control said it expects 24,200 doses to arrive in Maine next week and go out to hospitals and medical practices right away. The agency expects the initial doses to be split evenly between the two vaccines, one from Moderna and the other from Pfizer.

Pfizer's vaccine is a tenth of the adult dose and requires three shots, the first two administered three weeks apart and the last at least three months later. Moderna's vaccine, a quarter the strength of its adult version, requires two shots about four weeks apart.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said there does not appear to be any of the supply chain problems that bedeviled the distribution of the first vaccines more than a year ago. He said health care providers can order more doses weekly, and deliveries can be adjusted to make sure providers replenish their supplies and new providers can also be supplied.

There are an estimated 60,000 Maine children between six months to five years old — the target population for new vaccines. Long said Maine ranks near the top nationally for vaccinations and boosters among older children and adults and he expects that to be the case with pre-schoolers as well.

Long said the state will send vaccines to large health care providers, such as MaineHealth and Northern Light, which will then redistribute doses to their family and pediatric practices.

"This hub-and-spoke model has worked well in previous phases of the COVID-19 vaccination effort," he said.

In addition to supplying physician networks, some vaccines will also be going to pharmacies, but they are prohibited from vaccinating children under the age of three. Long said state officials urge parents to contact a pediatrician or family care provider to arrange vaccinations.

The health care providers aren't expected to set up mass vaccination sites for the pre-schoolers, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, a former head of the Maine CDC who is now chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, said Friday.

She said vaccinations would be harder to administer to children at a large site, such as the Portland Expo, where thousands of shots were given assembly-line style when the adult vaccines rolled out in early 2021. She said younger children generally need a more secluded space, along with extra room to accommodate their parents, when getting a vaccine shot.

MaineHealth family and pediatric practices will provide vaccinations to their patients and the general public, said Mills, who is also a pediatrician. The provider expects the practices to get shipments of the vaccine Monday and begin providing vaccination shots Tuesday and Wednesday, she said.

"It's going to be nice to have that extra layer of protection" by extending vaccine coverage to children as young as 6 months to old age, Mills said. Moderna plans to study whether its vaccines can be administered to children as young as three months, federal officials said.

It's not unusual for drug manufacturers to distribute new medicines and vaccines to older patients first, Mills said, and then roll it out to younger and younger people as it gains more widespread use and any safety issues are addressed.

Mills also noted that COVID, when it first emerged, caused the most serious problems in older people and seemed to skip over children. Only as the virus evolved did it start to spread to teenagers and then pre-teens, she said.

But that evolution of the virus is why it's important that as many people as possible get vaccinated, especially now that it's available to all but the very youngest, Mills said.

"The pandemic is like a fire and the vaccines are like water on the fire," she said. "Nothing is going to completely put out the fire, but vaccination is another level of protection."

The rollout of the vaccine for young children begins as the virus continues to circulate in Maine, with hundreds of new infections confirmed every day and more than 100 patients with COVID hospitalized statewide.

There were 138 hospitalizations as of Friday morning, including 18 people in critical care and four on ventilators. The number of patients has held steady for the past 10 days after declining from 231 patients on May 17.

Maine's CDC also reported 218 new cases of COVID Friday. The seven-day average declined to 216 new cases per day, down from more than 800 new cases a day in early May.

However, the actual number of new infections is significantly higher than the state's daily case reports because so many people now use at-home tests, which are not captured in the data.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has officially recorded 267,400 cases and 2,408 deaths.