Maine’s largest hospital groups are preparing to receive and distribute COVID-19 vaccines before a first batch arrives, possibly in the next few weeks.

But while hospital officials are lining up storage freezers and preparing to vaccinate health care workers and other high-risk groups as soon as possible, vaccination of the general public may not begin until spring 2021 and many Mainers may not be vaccinated until later next year.

The hospital group that includes Mercy Hospital in Portland has bought four ultra-cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine. Courtesy Northern Light Mercy Hospital

Northern Light Health, which includes Mercy Hospital in Portland, Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, has purchased four ultra-cold freezers to accommodate a Pfizer vaccine that must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit).

“They are located across the state in order to ensure that, if we were to receive that vaccine, we could deploy it as we needed to,” Dr. James Jarvis, senior physician executive for Northern Light Maine Health, said during an online news briefing Wednesday.

The Pfizer vaccine, which is administered in two doses, is scheduled for emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 10. A similar two-dose vaccine from Moderna, which is scheduled for FDA review on Dec. 17, would not need ultra-cold storage.

MaineHealth, which includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford and Stevens Memorial Hospital in Norway, has two ultra-cold freezers and is purchasing two more, which will be strategically located to serve the system.

“The logistics of keeping the vaccine cold and distributing it throughout our system are manageable,” said Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth. “The real challenge is staffing vaccination clinics with doctors and nurses, and we are actively identifying those teams at this time.”

MaineHealth has formed a task force of clinicians across the system to work on distribution logistics and prepare for scheduling and staffing vaccine clinics for front-line health care workers at highest risk of exposure to the coronavirus, Boomsma said in a written statement.

Central Maine Healthcare, which includes Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Rumford Hospital and Bridgton Hospital, will have access to two ultra-cold freezers so it can administer the Pfizer vaccine to its communities according to public health guidelines.

“Central Maine Medical Center is one of the sites in Maine selected to receive initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine,” Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer of Central Maine Healthcare, said in written statement. “We are collaborating closely with the state and community partners such as Bates College, which lent us two ultra-cold freezers to store the vaccine.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also has purchased two ultra-cold freezers and the University of New England’s pharmacy school was expected to loan a giant ultra-cold freezer to the agency.

Jarvis, with Northern Light Health, said he expects Maine to receive its first shipment of a vaccine sometime after Dec. 15, based on the latest information he has received from federal and state health officials.

Maine is expected to receive an initial shipment of 12,675 vaccine doses, which would be enough to administer a first dose to 12,675 individuals, Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday during a regular coronavirus briefing.

The federal government will be holding a second round of 12,675 doses in reserve for a follow-up distribution, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.

Federal officials had indicated that Maine would get 30,000 to 36,000 doses in its first shipment, Mills said, and she’s trying to find out why the amount has been reduced.

Based on current federal guidelines, the first people to be vaccinated will be health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities and others in high-risk groups, Jarvis said.

Health care workers treating patients who have COVID-19 would get top priority, he said. Vaccination of the wider public won’t begin until springtime 2021, he said, possibly from swab-and-send testing sites already established across the state, at least initially.

“Hopefully, we will see that sometime early in the spring, we will be talking about vaccinating the general public,” Jarvis said. “All of that is subject to change almost on an hour-by-hour basis as we gain more information.”

It’s unclear at this time which agency will be leading the effort to vaccinate long-term care residents, Jarvis said.

“We are ready to assist if they ask us to do that,” Jarvis said. “We can do this. This is something we do very well.”

Boomsma, with MaineHealth, noted that the Maine CDC hasn’t issued detailed guidance on exactly which care team members would be prioritized. Nor is it known exactly when the vaccines would become available, she said, or how many doses would be allocated to health care providers.

She said the federal CDC has issued top-line guidance that prioritizes health care workers most at risk of exposure to the coronavirus and nursing home residents, but individual states will set the exact priorities for distribution of the first doses.

“There is a lot we don’t know yet about the exact timing and prioritization for distribution,” said Boomsma. “But we will be ready.”

Healthy Mainers without underlying health conditions that put them at elevated risk, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, might not be vaccinated until the summer of 2021 or later, Shah said.

Even after vaccination programs are well underway, Jarvis said Mainers should plan on wearing masks and social distancing through 2021 and possibly into 2022 – a time frame that depends on large portions of the population being vaccinated and the virus showing signs that it’s under control.

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