Molly Hoadley, a member of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Kennebunk, rings a bell at the church on Tuesday. The church rang the bell once for every 10,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States to take part in a national memorial to the victims. “Tolling the bell is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years to honor the lives of those who have died,” said the Rev. Lara K-J Campbell, minister of the church. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will divert 500 COVID-19 vaccine doses from CVS to an independent pharmacy next week, taking the step with vaccines in short supply and as it attempts to speed up the pace of immunizations in nursing homes.

Pharmacies have been immunizing nursing home residents and staff, but Maine CDC officials have said they have been disappointed by the slow rollout of vaccines to nursing homes, a program that is operating under a contract that CVS and Walgreens have with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A CVS spokesman said on Wednesday that the shift of the doses has nothing to do with the pace of its vaccinations, but is being done because it is “respecting” the wishes of Shalom House to use an independent pharmacy. The Portland nonprofit operates a residential program for the mentally ill.

Last week, the Maine CDC transferred 1,950 doses from Walgreens to Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, both in Lewiston. This week, the health agency is moving 975 doses from Walgreens to an independent pharmacy, which will use them to inoculate nursing home residents and staff.

An additional 500 doses will be moved from CVS to an independent pharmacy next week, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said on Wednesday.

Joe Goode, a spokesman with CVS, said that Shalom House wanted to partner with a “pharmacy with whom they have an existing relationship, Bedard Pharmacy. In respecting their wishes, we are transferring 100 doses this week and 400 doses next week.”

Goode said CVS is working quickly to immunize patients and staff at long-term care facilities.

“First doses at all 38 skilled nursing facilities who chose to partner with CVS in Maine are complete,” Goode said. “First doses at assisted-living and other facilities, which were only activated by the state on Jan. 4, are well underway and should be complete by the end of the month.”

The arrangement the U.S. CDC has with CVS and Walgreens has been criticized in many states for its slow rollout. The only state that entirely opted out of the program, West Virginia, has the second-best vaccination rate in the country, according to the Bloomberg News vaccine tracker.

West Virginia has given 8.73 doses per 100 people, compared to 4.9 per 100 in the United States. Maine’s rate of 6.12 doses per 100 people through Jan. 19 was the 10th highest rate in the country. Alaska was tops in the nation at 9.44 doses per 100 population.

While Maine did not opt out of the retail pharmacy program, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has said that the state does have leeway to shift doses to other pharmacies or hospitals if the pharmacy chains aren’t administering vaccinations fast enough.

“We are not messing around with this,” Shah said during a Jan. 15 media briefing. “We’ve got doses waiting to be administered, and people waiting to receive them.”

Shah said last week that CVS was performing better than Walgreens at administering immunizations at long-term care facilities.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services did not direct any of the 18,550 doses it received from the federal government to CVS and Walgreens this week. About 25 percent of the more than 117,000 doses that have been shipped to Maine have gone to the retail pharmacy program, Shah said last week.

“This is not a policy change,” Long, the Maine CDC spokesman, said in an email response to questions Wednesday. “It simply reflects that the retail pharmacy program has enough doses to meet its needs this week. We evaluate best use of available doses every week to ensure that no doses go to waste and that we can vaccinate as many Phase 1 people as possible as fairly as possible.”

Maine reported 701 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 11 additional deaths.

The case count on Wednesday was significantly higher than the previous four days, when daily counts were in the 300s and 400s. However, reporting of cases may have lagged because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 34,963 positive cases of COVID-19, and 530 deaths in Maine.

The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 544.7 on Wednesday, compared to 579.1 a week ago and 431.9 a month ago.

As the number of new infections continues to run much higher than in the summer and early fall, the health care system is racing to administer doses of the vaccines. This week, Maine launched a program to start immunizing the nearly 200,000 people in the 70-and-older demographic. But with vaccine supplies limited to about 18,000 doses a week so far, the demand is not being met.

Maine has given 85,847 vaccine doses, including 71,707 first doses and 14,140 second doses, the state CDC reported on its online dashboard Wednesday.

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

Hospital systems have been inundated with calls requesting vaccine appointments, and they have been filling up quickly.

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

Dr. James Jarvis,  COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said that they have very limited supplies of vaccines. For those 70 and older, Northern Light Health began scheduling vaccine appointments on Monday for the week and the slots were all taken within three hours. He said they will typically open appointments on Mondays, but people should expect limited vaccine supply in the coming weeks. They will not schedule people beyond the doses they are getting for the week because they don’t want to make appointments and then have to cancel them if supplies don’t match expectations.

“We can only use what we get, but we are striving to get the vaccine into people’s arms as soon as we can,” Jarvis said.

Nevertheless, patients 70 and older are encouraged to keep trying, and as supplies of the vaccine become more plentiful, making appointments should become easier in the coming weeks, Shah said. To find out where to make a vaccine appointment, the governor’s office has set up a website with contact information.

The state also is still vaccinating health care workers, paramedics, police officers, and staff and residents of nursing homes, while launching the program for those 70 and older.

Also on Tuesday, Shah announced that 4,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine were potentially spoiled in transit to Maine. The doses are shipped in containers that are supposed to keep the vaccine at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, but sensors in the packaging indicated that the doses got too warm. Shipments to replace the tainted doses arrived at various locations in Maine on Wednesday, Long said.

The U.S. CDC, Moderna officials and the contracted carrier are investigating what activated the temperature sensors that are part of the shipping system. The investigation will determine whether it is necessary to test the doses to see if they are still viable or need to be thrown away, Long said.

The 11 deaths reported Wednesday include five residents of Cumberland County, one resident of Kennebec County, four from Penobscot County, one from York County. Five of the people who died were women, while six were men. Three of the deaths occurred in people in their 60s, three in their 70s and five in their 80s.

Currently, 198 people are hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19, with 71 in intensive care and 37 on ventilators.

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