Pharmacy Director Vahid Rohani prepares a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. Nurses were scheduled to vaccinate over 200 St. Mary’s health care workers. A 40 percent shortfall in the number of doses Maine will have next week means the state cannot fully launch its retail pharmacy program aimed at vaccinating residents and staff members of long-term care facilities.  Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The federal government has told the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention that the number of Pfizer vaccines available to the state next week will be nearly 40 percent lower than expected.

Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program for accelerating the development and distribution of the vaccine that protects people against COVID-19, notified the Maine CDC and other health departments around the nation without warning or explanation that shipments would contain significantly fewer doses than originally anticipated.

The final number of available Pfizer doses for week two of the vaccination launch, which began this week, will be 8,775 doses, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email Thursday afternoon. That represents a roughly 36 percent decline from the 13,650 doses the state was expecting to receive. Operation Warp Speed did not provide an explanation for the reduction, Long said.

“Receiving, distributing, and administering vaccines to every corner of our state as quickly as possible is a massive logistical feat,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “We appreciate that there will be changes during this critical process based on the supply of the vaccine, but we have to be able to rely on the federal government’s estimates of the doses Maine will receive.

“The news that Maine and other states will now receive fewer doses of Pfizer vaccines next week, with no explanation, is frustrating and disrupts our distribution plans. I urge the federal government to be more transparent with any changes that affect the share of the vaccines that are distributed. People’s lives hang in the balance.”

The reduction means the state will not receive the required minimum doses – 10,725 – to fully launch the retail pharmacy program aimed at vaccinating residents and staff of all long-term care facilities in Maine.

“This last-minute change by the federal government means that Maine must delay providing COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable residents in certain long-term care facilities,” Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement. “While we will adjust our plans, solid numbers with sufficient lead time from Operation Warp Speed would help us protect Maine people against this virus as efficiently and equitably as possible.”

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – were asked Thursday evening what steps they were taking to ensure that Maine receives the vaccine shipments it was told to expect. The delegation’s offices sent a joint statement expressing concern and saying they are united to make sure Maine receives its fair share of doses.

“As the Maine Delegation wrote in their letter to (U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex) Azar last week, states must receive immediate and greater clarity from the Department of Health and Human Services when significant changes are made to projected COVID-19 vaccine allotments,” the statement said. “It’s important for projections to be as accurate and timely as possible so that states can better refine distribution plans and errors can be avoided.

“The allocation of millions of doses of vaccines on an accelerated time frame is an unprecedented undertaking and there are bound to be complications with production and logistics, but ensuring a smooth roll-out will require seamless coordination at every level.”

Azar never responded to the delegation letter last week, but representatives of Operation Warp Speed have pointed out that states’ allocations have always been projections that are subject to change.

Pingree, in a phone interview late Thursday, said the unexplained reduction in state allotments “raises a lot of questions,” as does the lack of communication.

“I have continued frustration with this administration and their ability to rise to the task,” she said. “Every time you see a big glitch, it undermines public confidence in a system where we need to have faith.”

Pingree said the fact Pfizer has said it has surplus vaccines at the same time states are seeing their allotments cut is unacceptable, no matter the explanation.

Maine began vaccinating front-line health care workers with the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday. Maine Medical Center intensive care nurse Kayla Mitchell made history Tuesday morning when she became the first person in the state to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

DHHS still plans to distribute 3,900 doses in Week 2 of the vaccine rollout to residents and staff at skilled care nursing care facilities, but will be forced to delay the program for assisted-living facilities and other residential care facilities. Those facilities should begin receiving their allotment of vaccines in the near future, the Maine CDC said.

The remaining supply of 4,875 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, scheduled to be distributed next week, will go to Maine Medical Center, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, and MaineGeneral. In total, Maine will receive enough vaccine – during the first two weeks of distribution – to vaccinate 45,650 people. The Maine CDC said that total is contingent on the federal government authorizing the Moderna vaccine for emergency use.

The announcement sparked confusion and concern about the ability of Operation Warp Speed to distribute the vaccines in a timely basis, according to the Washington Post.

The Post said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the revised estimates for next week were the result of states requesting an expedited timeline for locking in future shipments, which left less time for federal authorities to inspect and clear available supply.

The reductions prompted Pfizer to release a statement that seemed to put the company at odds with Operation Warp Speed, saying the company faced no production issues and had more doses available than were being distributed.

“We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses,” Pfizer told the Washington Post.

The Washington Post reported that 5.9 millions doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine are poised to be shipped out next week, assuming the federal government approves Moderna’s vaccine. An advisory panel met Thursday and recommended that the Food and Drug Administration issue an emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine, all but guaranteeing the FDA would follow the recommendation.

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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