A man rests on a bench on Congress Street in Portland on Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Maine Medical Association wants to use community health clinics to give COVID-19 vaccinations to more than 1,000 doctors, nurses and staff who don’t belong to one of the state’s hospital networks.

The proposal comes as doctors in independent practices complain that the state and hospital networks have left them out of plans to receive the vaccine. Vaccine deliveries are falling short of expectations, which has complicated the task of administering doses to front-line health care workers.

On Tuesday, Maine reported 590 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional deaths.

Independent doctors say they are seeing non-essential health workers employed by hospital networks already getting vaccinated. But physicians who aren’t affiliated with these networks, many at high risk because they treat COVID patients, have not yet been told when they will receive their shots.

Dr. Cortney Linville, a Wiscasset physician, told the Press Herald on Monday that doctors and their staff who treat rural patients feel “neglected” and left out of immunization planning.

Most doctors work for a hospital network – such as MaineHealth, the parent of Maine Medical Center in Portland, or Northern Light Health, the parent of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. But there are still independent physician practices in Maine, as well as primary care groups, such as InterMed and Martin’s Point, that are independent of the hospital networks.

Maine operates 20 federally-qualified health centers, clinics that primarily serve low-income Maine people, not only in urban areas like Portland and Bangor, but also in many rural areas such as Eastport, Lubec and Bucksport.

Those facilities could be ideal locations for immunization clinics, said Dan Morin, spokesman for the Maine Medical Association, a group that represents physicians before the Maine Legislature. Independent doctors and staff in far flung areas of Maine might otherwise have to travel long distances to be vaccinated.

“We could use the FQHC’s (federally-qualified health centers) to vaccinate independent physicians, as well as first responders, like volunteer firefighters and EMTs,” Morin said. “It’s about the equity.”

Morin said when vaccine doses started being distributed to hospitals, there was no plan in place to vaccinate independent doctors and nurses, even though they are also frontline health workers.

Darcy Shargo, CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association which represents the health clinics, said in an email response to questions that discussions are in the early stages, but such a plan could be possible.

“We have had some very preliminary discussion in our network and there is willingness amongst some of our health center sites to support the vaccination roll out effort in this way,” Shargo said. “Although I would caution there are logistical hurdles that we would need to work through. And of course one of those big hurdles is that the community health centers are working on getting their workforce vaccinated as well.”

Morin said he discussed developing plans for vaccinating independent physicians during a conference call Monday afternoon with Jeanne Lambrew, state health and human services commissioner, and Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director.

The state’s top health officials seemed willing to help, Morin said, and he hopes the problem will be resolved soon. Shah said during Monday’s media briefing that he was aware of the issue and the state is working on solutions, but he couldn’t precisely say when those health workers will be vaccinated. Many people are in line to receive the vaccines, but the state is not getting the number of doses it was promised by the federal government, Shah said.

Maine has so far received some 5,200 fewer doses than allocated by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. As of Tuesday, the state had received 32,175 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 32,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine, said Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman.

Of those, 19,634 have been administered, an increase of nearly 2,500 since Monday, according to the Maine CDC. Those vaccinated represent about 1.5 percent of the state’s population.

Long said the doses have been “shipped to hospitals, retail pharmacies, independent pharmacies, home health and hospice care providers, and EMS providers.”

The country is still in the early stages of immunization for COVID-19, with the first vaccines approved by federal regulators in mid-December for emergency use. The U.S. is now ramping up the massive logistical undertaking of a nationwide vaccination program.

Since the pandemic began, 22,909 Maine people have tested positive for COVID-19, and 333 have died.

Shah said during a media briefing Monday that the shortfalls in expected vaccine shipments are causing logistical problems. Front-line health care workers, paramedics, and staff and residents of long-term care facilities are first in line for the vaccine.

“Unfortunately, being shorted in that fashion has systemwide implications,” Shah said Monday, explaining that planning for distribution has to be altered on the fly when shortages arise. Shah said federal officials explained in a conference call that a discrepancy between when Pfizer produced doses and when it is ready to ship them is causing the shortages.

President Trump signed a COVID-19 relief bill this week that includes $8 billion for vaccine distribution, to help states manage the vaccine program’s rollout.

Hannaford Supermarkets announced Tuesday that it is preparing to offer COVID-19 vaccines at its pharmacies in Maine and four other New England states as soon as Phase 2 of the state’s multi-phase vaccination program begins. Maine is currently in Phase 1A. Hannaford said it does not know when Phase 2 will begin.

Hannaford said in a news release that it received federal approval in November to administer COVID-19 vaccines. Since then, the company has purchased additional freezers and prepared pharmacies to receive the vaccine. It has also provided additional training to pharmacy staff, purchased additional personal protective equipment, and developed digital appointment forms and scheduling tools to decrease wait times.

Hannaford operates 156 pharmacies across Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

The deaths on Tuesday include two women from Cumberland County, one in her 90s and one in her 80s; a man in his 70s from Androscoggin County; a woman in her 80s from Oxford County; a woman in her 70s from Penobscot County; a man in his 60s from Penobscot County; and a woman in her 80s from York County.

Maine has 184 people currently hospitalized for COVID-19, with 48 in intensive care.

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