A nurse prepares a vaccine shot at Atria Senior Living in Kennebunk, where staff and residents received their first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic administered by CVS professionals on Saturday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday that she will update Maine’s coronavirus vaccination plan in the coming days in response to new federal guidelines advising states to prioritize vaccinations for those 65 and older and those with pre-existing conditions.

Mills said state health officials are aware that the virus poses the most serious threat to older people and those with underlying health conditions, and that Maine has many people in both groups.

She also said the state is getting “a limited, unpredictable and inconsistent supply of vaccine from the federal government … (and) it is appropriate to first target the limited supply of vaccine Maine receives to older Mainers and those with underlying health conditions. Doing so will save lives.”

Maine had given 58,083 immunization shots, including 51,150 first doses and 6,933 second doses, as of Tuesday, when the state also reported 11 more deaths and 715 new cases of COVID-19.

In response to the new guidelines, Mills said, the state is likely to have questions about the logistics of changing the vaccine allocation formula and distribution of second doses, but “in principle, I am encouraged that they appear to align with our goals of quickly vaccinating those who are most at risk of losing their lives to this deadly virus.”

Mills also said she and other state officials are frustrated by the slow pace of vaccine deliveries, and that they need to speed up for Maine to act on the new federal guidelines.

Doses delivered to states have come in at a fraction of the pace promised by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, with Maine getting about 18,000 doses per week.

If the pace does not accelerate rapidly, Maine and the rest of the country will not have enough supply to deliver vaccines to those 65 and older anytime soon regardless of the policy. Seniors 65 and older represent 21 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million population, or about 270,000 people. At the current pace, it would take three to four months to give everyone 65 and older the first dose of the vaccine.

“As vaccine eligibility expands in many parts of the country, confusion is going to shift from “Am I eligible?” to “I’m eligible, so why can’t I find a place that actually has vaccines and appointments available?” tweeted Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a San Francisco-based health policy think tank.

Alex Azar, the Trump administration’s health and human services secretary, said in a news conference Tuesday that the agency was telling states they should open vaccinations to all people age 65 or older, and to people under age 65 who have high-risk health conditions.

In addition, under a new federal policy second doses of the vaccine will be shipped immediately, rather than being kept in reserve.

Azar also said that within two weeks, states would receive vaccine shipments based on how quickly they have used up previous doses and the percentage of people in the state who are over 65.

Under both metrics, Maine would get more doses than it’s currently receiving.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to speed up vaccinations, but it’s unclear whether the new directives will be followed when he takes office in eight days.

Maine has one of the nation’s oldest populations and has a higher percentage of doses delivered than most states, at 43.7 percent compared to the 36 percent national average, according to the Bloomberg News vaccine tracker.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services – had advised giving vaccinations in phases, although many states have deviated from the federal guidelines.

The U.S. CDC had recommended that those in the 65-74 age category be immunized in Phase 1C, and those 75 and older should be immunized in 1B. Maine is currently immunizing group 1A, which includes health care workers, staff and residents of nursing homes, and paramedics, a group that comprises about 130,000 people.

After two days of relatively lower numbers, including 313 new cases on Monday and 273 on Sunday, the 715 new cases reported Tuesday were in line with the higher figures that had been common in Maine early this month and in December.

The seven-day daily average on Tuesday stood at 537.3, up from 522.3 a week ago and 367.9 a month ago.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has reported 30,326 cases of COVID-19 and 449 deaths. Currently, 203 people are hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19, with 68 in intensive care.

Maine has the third-highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the country, giving four doses per every 100 residents, according to a Bloomberg News vaccine tracker, behind only West Virginia and South Dakota.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of Maine CDC, said Monday that the agency is working with hospitals to get vaccines administered quickly and that doses are not sitting on shelves, as has been reported in some other states.

Phase 1B is expected to begin in February and as of now includes seniors 75 and older and front-line essential workers such as police officers, teachers, postal workers and grocery store clerks. However, exactly which groups will be at the front of the line in Phase 1B is still under discussion, Shah has said.

Many families have called on the state to put older residents at the head of the line, ahead of essential workers.

Sheri Testa, of Connecticut, whose parents are in their 90s and live in Brunswick, said she believes the elderly should be a very high priority for the Maine CDC, and they should already have been told when they can get their COVID-19 shots.

“It just made me so angry to not be able to protect them,” Testa said.

Jane White, 92, Testa’s mother, said she and her 98-year-old husband, Bud, are willing to wait until it’s their turn.

“There are more important people than our group,” Jane White said. Bud White stormed Utah Beach as part of the Army’s D-Day invasion during World War II. “They’ll just get to us when they can. They can’t do too much anyway until they get more of the vaccine, so you just have to be patient.”

Phase 1C, those between 65 and 74, essential workers and younger people with high-risk health conditions, is not expected to begin until spring, while vaccinating the general population could be late spring or summer.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 10 states and the District of Columbia have already moved those 65 and older into Phase 1B.

Shah said the state is still working on plans to host mass vaccination events, a logistical challenge given the transmission risks at large gatherings. The mass vaccination events could be held at civic centers, schools or community centers.

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