Hospitals and major health organizations across the state are scrambling to organize COVID-19 vaccination efforts amid uncertainty over limited supply and to communicate with patients who are older or have high-risk health conditions about when their turn might come.

And they are doing so while continuing to treat record numbers of patients.

“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it, there is no doubt about it,” said Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association. “And we’re getting overwhelmed, which is a sign that it’s not going as well as it should be, to be honest.”

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills announced that preparations were underway to begin Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination effort and that older Mainers, or those at greatest risk of dying from COVID-19, would be first in line. The process of reaching those individuals and getting them either preregistered or signed up for appointments has fallen largely to hospitals, even as some details are still being ironed out. The result has been an unprecedented number of calls and inquiries from individuals who want to get their vaccines and the inevitable frustration for many who can’t even get through.

Registered nurse Holly Burnham vaccinates a person at the Northern Light Homecare and Hospice COVID-19 vaccine clinic last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“People are excited and anxious,” said Chris Facchini, spokesman for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Mercy Hospital in Portland and others. “Most of our limited available clinic appointments for this week were filled within hours of launching our website. We ask people to please not call our offices or hospitals as they cannot offer any more information than is on our website. We hope to have a call center up soon to assist those who cannot access the web or have more questions.”

MaineHealth, a health care system that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, has been inundated with calls after sending out notices last week to some 300,000 people in its network, receiving more than 18,000 phone inquiries on Monday alone. As expected, appointments for vaccines filled up almost immediately. The health care organization said Tuesday that it’s looking at alternative ways to manage the high volume of requests and asked people to stop reaching out in the meantime.

MaineHealth also announced Tuesday that it has begun offering limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to people 70 and older and that Franklin Community Health Network in Farmington and Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick plan to begin a regular schedule of vaccinations this week.

Other organizations within MaineHealth will begin vaccinations of people in that age group over the course of the next week or so:

• Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford and Sanford and Western Maine Health/Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway expect to begin vaccinating people 70 and older by Friday.

• LincolnHealth in Damariscotta and Boothbay Harbor and Maine Medical Center/Maine Medical Partners in greater Portland expect to start vaccinating people 70 and older beginning Monday.

• Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital in Rockland and Belfast are in the planning stages, with vaccinations of those 70 and older expected to start in Belfast on Jan. 27 or later.

Many older Mainers have had to manage expectations.

Dan O’Connell, 71, of Wiscasset has a primary care physician affiliated with MaineHealth. He wasn’t able to get through and get an appointment, but a friend, who also is under the MaineHealth umbrella, did.

“A friend of mine received an email on Friday and was able to go get his shot at 8 a.m. on Monday,” O’Connell said. “I’m wondering how he got an email but I didn’t.”

Lora Larrivee of Gray has been serving as a caretaker for her neighbors, an 80-year-old and a 78-year-old. Both have Intermed as their primary health care provider.

Larrivee said the 80-year-old man was on the phone for more than a half hour Monday trying to get an appointment. When a live person finally came on the line, all the appointments were full. Now they’ll have to keep waiting.

“It has been hard for them,” Larrivee said. “The end is in sight, but it’s been frustrating.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that confusion and frustration were expected and understandable and he urged people to hang in there.

“We realize folks may have had trouble getting through,” he said. “It’s a great sign that there is so much robust demand for the vaccine.”

Still, he said people need to understand that so much is being driven by the supply of vaccines, which is out of the state’s control and hasn’t grown to meet the demand. Last week, just one day after Maine announced that it had moved older residents into Phase 1B, officials learned they would not be getting additional vaccine doses that were supposed to be held in reserve by the U.S. CDC.

“Right now, there is just not enough vaccine,” Shah said.

Eventually, vaccinations will be administered en masse at large-scale clinics that have yet to be created. Until then, hospitals and other health care practices are taking on the responsibility of vaccinating older individuals, but some are further along than others. The state has 33 providers listed on its website where people can inquire about vaccines. Shah said “as more providers become ready to open their doors, we’ll make sure their contact information is included.”

At Central Maine Healthcare, appointments have not yet been scheduled and the organization did not receive any additional vaccines this week, said Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer.

“In the meantime, we are working on processes for the public to be able to schedule appointments in concert with vaccine availability,” he said in a statement. “We will update patients and the public as we have more details to share.”

Maine General in Augusta also has not begun setting appointments but has heard from a number of people interested in registering.

“We are working to put that process together,” spokeswoman Joy McKenna said. “We have had great interest expressed by patients and the community and we are eager to help those who want the vaccine to get it as soon as possible.”

Others already have begun but are moving forward cautiously.

Facchini, with Northern Light Health, said the network often gets little notice about when vaccines are arriving. Right now, new appointments are added to the online scheduling system on Mondays. There is no waiting list currently, which means people need to keep trying.

“We built our clinics and scheduling process to take into account this uncertainty,” he said.

Michaud, with the Maine Hospital Association, said he understands if people are frustrated with the rollout, but he said health care workers are doing their best.

“They signed up for this work, but no one signed up for a once-in-100-year pandemic,” he said. “They’re all trying to take care of sick people and now we’re throwing this on top of that.”

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