State health officials continue to explore options for an online vaccination registration system, as well as sites for mass-vaccination clinics for whenever drug supplies allow more widespread inoculation against COVID-19.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that smaller-than-expected vaccine deliveries from the federal government are slowing vaccinations in Maine and other states. But Shah said preliminary planning is underway for higher-volume vaccination sites, as well as advanced, online registration to speed up the process.

“Based on what we are currently doing as a state, we know that we will need to make up even more ground once vaccines become more widely available,” Shah said. “But right now, the main constraint on more widespread vaccination continues to be the supply of vaccines that’s coming into the state, not so much our ability to get it out.”

Shah’s comments came on a day when the Maine CDC reported six additional deaths among individuals with COVID-19 as well as 313 new cases of the disease. To date, there have been 29,616 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 reported in Maine and 438 deaths, with more than 85 percent of those deaths occurring among Mainers age 70 or older.

The newly reported deaths included two residents of Aroostook County, two residents of York County and one each in Kennebec and Waldo counties. The Maine CDC said five of the six were among individuals age 70 or older while the sixth death was an individual in their 40s.

The 313 cases reported on Monday is lower than the seven-day average of 522 cases, although the state health lab frequently receives fewer tests for processing or results from other labs during weekends. There were 195 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 – compared to 186 last Monday – along with 58 patients being treated in intensive care units and 25 connected to ventilators.

A woman walks through Monument Square in Portland on Friday.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer  Buy this Photo

Meanwhile, thousands of additional people are being vaccinated for COVID-19 daily, although the pace of vaccinations – in Maine and nationwide – has been slower than anticipated.

The Maine CDC reported that 55,775 vaccination shots had been administered in Maine as of Monday. That figure includes 49,794 initial doses of the two-shot regimen as well as 5,981 second shots with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Maine’s vaccination plan is currently focused on health care professionals, along with residents and staff of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. The next phase of vaccinations, which is expected to begin in February, will target Mainers age 75 or older and essential front-line workers, such as police officers, teachers, grocery store workers, postal clerks, daycare workers and those involved in food/agricultural production.

Vaccinations are averaging roughly 12,000 per week in Maine, far short of the 50,000 weekly vaccinations that state health officials say is necessary to turn the tide against the virus and avoid another surge next fall. Shipments from the federal government have been slower than anticipated, although Maine has consistently ranked among the states with the highest vaccination rates in the early weeks of the rollout.

Maine had administered four doses for every 100 residents as of Monday, which was the third-highest rate in the country after West Virginia and South Dakota, according to tracking by Bloomberg. The state had the fifth-highest percentage nationally of vaccines that have been administered, at 57 percent, although Shah said the percentage among vaccines “controlled” by the state is between 80 and 90 percent.

While Maine has among the nation’s highest vaccination rates, the state has trailed others in developing some of the infrastructure for carrying out vaccinations, such as online registration systems. Shah said his office still “hasn’t arrived at an IT solution yet” that would allow online registration and scheduling.

During a briefing with reporters on Monday, Shah he was proud Maine has among the highest vaccination rates in the country. He also sought to assure residents that vaccines are not sitting unused, or going to waste, in Maine to counter reports that have come out of several other states.

“I want to be very clear that in Maine, what is happening is that doses are not sitting on the shelf,” Shah said. “Doses come in, they are allocated directly to hospitals and we have worked with them to get them into arms as quickly as possible.”

Roughly one-third of Maine’s allocation of vaccines was earmarked for residents of long-term care facilities, assisted living residents and other congregate care settings. Those vaccinations are being spearheaded in Maine and across the country by the retail pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens under the terms of a federal agreement.

The companies are only required to report vaccinations at long-term care facilities to the states every 72 hours. As of late last week, 4,034 doses had been administered to long-term care residents or staff in Maine. While that number was likely higher by Monday, Shah expressed concerns about the pace of the vaccination program for long-term care facilities.

The Maine CDC team learned that one of the two chains (Shah did not name which) had additional doses on hand that were earmarked for Maine but “could not tell us when they would put them into arms.” As a result, the Maine CDC requested that 1,950 of those doses be redirected to Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, both of which had demand and capacity.

“That’s a tough call to make but I am prepared and will continue to do that if we don’t see that pace increase going forward,” Shah said.

Maine Public reported that the Maine CDC requisitioned the nearly 2,000 doses from Walgreens.

Vaccinations of individuals between the ages of 65 and 74, as well as younger people with high-risk health conditions, are not expected to begin in Maine until late-winter or spring. The rest of the population is unlikely to become eligible for inoculation until summer, at the earliest, unless more vaccines become available because of increased production or approval of additional varieties.

In order to quickly achieve herd immunity among Maine’s population of 1.3 million people, Maine CDC state health officials will likely have to hold mass-vaccination events, which is a logistical challenge given the transmission risks at large gatherings. Those could be held at civic centers, in schools or community centers, although discussion of such events is still in the early stages given the limited vaccine supply.

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