Registered nurse Debbie Brenton prepares a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Northern Light Homecare and Hospice vaccine clinic on Jan. 13. The clinic was vaccinating mostly school nurses and other independent medical providers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

More than 4,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine delivered to Maine clinics this week were set aside and not given to patients because the boxes became too warm during shipping, officials said Tuesday.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said 35 of 50 sites in Maine that accepted shipments of Moderna vaccines on Monday received boxes that displayed a red checkmark, a sensor indicating that internal temperatures exceeded the safety threshold at some point in transit. The Moderna vaccine is shipped in containers designed to keep it at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a result, the Maine CDC instructed clinics not to administer the 4,400 doses to individuals. Additional doses to replace those that were set aside were expected to arrive Tuesday and Wednesday, Shah said.

He said the problem appeared to happen during packaging or shipping and “is not something on the Maine CDC or state of Maine side.” Shipments to other states also were found to have exceeded the temperature threshold needed to ensure the vaccines remain viable, Shah said.

The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed was shipping replacement doses to those locations on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the potentially compromised vaccines will be evaluated by Moderna or federal investigators to see if they are still safe to use. Shah said the news, while “unfortunate,” highlights the safeguards put in place.

“This news is concerning, but it’s important to note that this is how the system works,” Shah said during Tuesday’s briefing. “There are numerous checks along the way to ensure that when a vaccine arrives it is both safe and effective as well as viable. And if at any point in the journey of vaccine – from the site of manufacture to someone’s arm here in Maine – the shipping, handling and carrying conditions are not optimum, there are processes in place so that we know that and so that the vaccine is not given to somebody.”

While in this case the issue was with the temperature of the vaccine during transit, the Moderna vaccine also must be stored in a freezer at minus 4 degrees, or it can be kept for up to 30 days in a refrigerator.

It is the latest concerning development in the federal government’s rocky rollout of COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide. Maine and other states have received fewer doses than anticipated, and states are still struggling to plan their mass-vaccination efforts amid confusing statements from federal officials about the pace of vaccine deliveries.

Shah said the federal government’s vaccine shipments to Maine next week are expected to contain only slightly more doses than the 18,550 received this week.

“The biggest constraint on the system right now continues to be the supply of vaccine,” Shah said.

Maine reported 386 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths on Tuesday as more health care providers began scheduling immunizations for seniors 70 and older.

After a late fall and winter that has seen cases surge in Maine, Tuesday was the fourth day in a row of relatively lower case counts, with each day under 500 new cases. However, it’s possible that Maine may be experiencing a lag in reporting cases from the holiday weekend, and Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The seven-day average of daily new cases has been more than 500 since early January. Last week, Maine logged three days in a row with 800 or more daily new cases.

The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 562.3 on Tuesday, down from 624 on Jan. 15. The seven-day average was 537.3 a week ago, and 445.4 a month ago.

Overall, Maine has reported 34,262 cases of COVID-19, and 519 deaths. The COVID-19 positivity rate for molecular tests was at 4.6 percent on Tuesday, down by about a percentage point compared to a week ago, Shah said, one trend going in a positive direction.

In York County, Alfred’s Fire and Rescue Department continues to face staffing challenges because of an outbreak that has infected seven members and resulted in 10 other members being identified as close contacts of those who tested positive. Alfred firefighters or one of the town’s mutual aid partners are answering emergency calls, Chief Chris Carpenter said in a news release Tuesday, and most of the affected individuals should be available to return to work next week.

The state is beginning to vaccinate its 70-and-older population this week, with a state website listing all of the providers in the state offering the immunizations. Some providers are setting up clinics and taking appointments. MaineHealth, a health care system that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland and hospitals throughout the state, has set up a call center for appointments. To make an appointment, call 877-780-7545.

Shah understands that many people will have a difficult time making appointments while the supply of vaccines is scarce and demand is high, but he expects that will improve in the coming weeks. The incoming Biden administration has made vaccine distribution one of its priorities.

“I ask everyone to bear with us just a bit longer,” Shah said.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills announced the state would be moving those 70 and older and younger adults with high-risk health conditions higher on the priority list to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Maine is simultaneously running Phase 1A and Phase 1B of the vaccination program, with Phase 1A including health care workers, paramedics, staff and residents of nursing homes and police officers. Phase 1B includes those 70 and older, younger adults with high-risk health conditions and some front-line essential workers, such as teachers, grocery store clerks and postal workers. Within 1B, some groups will likely be higher priority than others, and the state is currently prioritizing seniors, as they are most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. Those 70 and older make up 85 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Maine. Later in Phase 1B the state will begin vaccinating those 65-69.

Maine has given 81,355 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, including 68,914 first doses and 12,411 second doses.

Currently, 191 people in Maine are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 68 in intensive care.

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