Heather Mea-Clark prepares doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during a clinic Thursday at Bay Square, an assisted-living community in Yarmouth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine’s COVID-19 mass vaccination program for those 70 and older is getting closer to launching, with a major health network sending out notices to patients Thursday that immunizations would begin within two weeks.

On Wednesday, the Mills administration altered the state’s program to give seniors 70 and older higher priority to receive vaccinations. Those changes are already having an impact on the rollout, with MaineHealth sending out a message Thursday to more than 300,000 patients to let them know that it plans to begin scheduling COVID-19 vaccine appointments for those 70 and older as soon as next week.

As the state races to vaccinate people, Maine reported 808 new cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths on Thursday.

It was the second day in a row that new cases topped 800. On Wednesday, Maine recorded 824 new cases, a new high. Overall, Maine has reported 31,958 cases of COVID-19 and 461 deaths. About 85 percent of all deaths in Maine from COVID-19 have occurred in those 70 and older.

“We expect to have shots in arms of people 70 and older by the end of the month,” said John Porter, a spokesman for MaineHealth. MaineHealth is the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland and operates an extensive network of primary care practices throughout much of the state, especially southern Maine. An email from Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer for MaineHealth, told patients that vaccine appointments were coming soon.

While not quite ready, MaineHealth soon will be setting up a call center for patients 70 and older to schedule appointments, and is working with the state on online scheduling, Porter said. Appointments will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis for those 70 and older whose doctors are part of the MaineHealth network.

MaineHealth will be releasing more information about its plans in the future, and patients should not call their doctors seeking appointments now.

All of the vaccinations will take place at standalone clinics being set up by MaineHealth strictly for COVID-19 immunizations, Porter said. The vaccine will not be given at primary care practices for logistical reasons.

“We are working to increase our capacity to vaccinate,” he said. Those 70 and older make up about 193,000 of Maine’s 1.3 million population.

Dr. James Jarvis from Northern Light Health said his health care network is developing an online process and call center to serve patients in the 70-plus age range who want to schedule a vaccination. Details of how that program will work should be available by early next week, Jarvis said.

“We do not yet know what our vaccine allotment will be for vaccinating people over 70, but we are confident that we will remain efficient and administer whatever we receive,” Jarvis said in a statement Thursday evening. “In addition, we are far along in assisting the state in setting up large scale clinics to vaccinate the general public following the state’s phased approach.”

Northern Light has not received the vaccine doses needed to begin the next round of vaccinations, but will let its patients know as soon as it is ready to start.

InterMed, which serves more than 100,000 patients in Greater Portland from its offices in Portland, South Portland, and Yarmouth, will begin offering vaccinations to its oldest and most vulnerable patients next week, according to spokesman John Lamb. InterMed will continue to vaccinate front-line health care workers.

“We anticipate the volume of available vaccine to increase in the coming weeks and will continue to work down our patient lists as quickly as we can,” Dan Loiselle, InterMed’s chief medical officer, wrote in a vaccination update sent to InterMed patients Thursday.

“Many of you have called asking for updates,” Loiselle wrote. “I wish I could provide you with a better timeline. The federal government plans to significantly increase the number of doses released, but right now, we are taking it week by week.”

Central Maine Healthcare is finalizing plans to expand vaccinations, according to a statement from John Alexander, chief medical officer. Central Maine Healthcare serves 400,000 patients in central, western and midcoast Maine. It operates Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Bridgton Hospital and Rumford Hospital.

“We’re excited to start vaccinating our first responders, public safety and critical response personnel and happy that Maine’s most vulnerable residents are being prioritized under the state’s updated strategy,” Alexander said. “We have been working on the logistics, including staffing, locations and systems for scheduling appointments, according to eligibility. We expect to announce details soon.”

More details about the state’s updated vaccination plan are expected next week.
But the ability of Maine and other states to ramp up vaccinations depends on an increase of doses from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Maine is expected to receive 100 extra doses of the vaccines next week, which means the state would receive 17,275 doses. Weekly doses have hovered around 17,000 for the past few weeks.

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said the state needs to receive 50,000 doses per week from Operation Warp Speed to to avoid having supply problems constrain the rollout of the vaccine.

Maine will receive an additional $89 million in federal funds to combat the pandemic, including $12 million for the COVID-19 vaccination program, and $77 million for testing, contact tracing and other strategies, the state’s congressional delegation said in a joint announcement Thursday. The $89 million was Maine’s share of a $50.8 billion agreement in Congress last month for COVID-19 relief to states.

“In the midst of this unprecedented public health and economic crisis, it is critical for Mainers to be able to access COVID-19 vaccines and testing,” said the statement from Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, Angus King, an independent, and Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Jared Golden, D-2nd District. “This important investment will help to keep communities healthy and safe by increasing the availability of testing and promoting the efficient distribution of vaccines throughout our state.”

In Maine, the seven-day daily average of new cases shot up to 618.1 on Thursday, compared to 520.4 just three days ago, 490 a week ago and 387.3 a month ago.

The new vaccination plan also moves up public safety workers into the current phase of immunizations.

The current vaccination program is in Phase 1A, which includes health care workers, paramedics and staff and residents of nursing homes, but it will soon add public safety workers like police officers. So far, 66,487 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered, 56,355 first doses and 10,132 second doses.

Phase 1B, which includes those 70 and older, is expected to begin soon, and can be launched even before Phase 1A is completed.

Also moved into Phase 1B, which includes front-line essential workers like teachers and postal workers, are those who manufacture, distribute or process COVID-19 tests.

There are currently 193 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, with 63 in intensive care. The eight deaths included three residents of Penobscot County, two from York County, two from Cumberland County and one from Aroostook County. Of the deaths, five were women and three were men. Six of the deaths were people 80 and older, while two people who died were in their 70s.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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