The Rev. Lara K-J Campbell holds a candle outside the front entrance to the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Kennebunk while looking up at the bell tower during a vigil Tuesday for those who have died of COVID-19. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The COVID-19 vaccine doses that state officials believed had spoiled in transit this week because they got too warm may have actually gotten too cold, which means there’s a better chance they can be salvaged, Maine’s top public health official said Thursday.

“Being too cold increases the chances that the vaccines delivered to Maine can eventually be used,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director, in an afternoon media briefing. “That’s because vaccines of this sort are generally more stable in cold environments.”

The 4,400 doses of Moderna vaccine were replaced by the federal government, and those doses have already arrived in Maine. But the 4,400 doses set aside for investigation could be used if scientists determine they are still viable.

While that’s potentially good news, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that next week’s vaccine shipment from the federal government would be 17,575 doses, 975 fewer than last week. So far, the number of doses shipped to Maine has been disappointing, Shah said.

“The supply of COVID-19 vaccines sent to our site is inadequate and unpredictable, but we remain committed to making this life-saving vaccine available to more Maine people as soon as we can,” said Jeanne Lambrew, director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement.

Shah said health officials initially feared that the 4,400 Moderna vaccine doses that arrived with a “red X” on them, indicating temperature thresholds were breached, arrived too warm. The vaccines are supposed to be kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Shah said it’s now the “working hypotheses” by U.S. CDC scientists that the gel packs designed to keep the vaccines at that temperature during transit were too cold. The gel packs are supposed to be “thawed out” before being put into containers with the vaccine, but likely were “just tossed into the boxes,” Shah said.

Shah said scientists with Moderna are determining how long the doses were kept at the wrong temperature to see if they could still be used. None of them have been used, Shah said.

“The process is to ensure the safety of vaccines from the site of the manufacturer to the site of administering them,” Shah said. “The process worked.”

Maine reported 675 new cases of COVID-19 and six additional deaths Thursday as the rollout of the vaccination program continues. MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland, announced Thursday that the former Scarborough Downs site will be used as a future mass vaccination clinic, with the capacity to immunize 1,000 patients per day.

This week, Maine started immunizing those 70 and older while continuing to vaccinate health care workers, paramedics, police officers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

Maine is racing to get the vaccine into people’s arms as quickly as possible, but is constrained by supply issues. Appointments are booked up within hours, but health officials hope that will change in the coming weeks if the federal government starts shipping more vaccine.

The Biden administration has promised to ramp up shipments and help states host vaccination clinics, and to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency involved. President Biden signed 10 executive orders Thursday – his first full day in office – to combat COVID-19, including mandating that masks be worn on federal property, providing more funding for state and local government to administer vaccines, producing and distributing more tests, and creating thousands of mass immunization sites across the country.

The state has administered 92,008 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, including 74,760 first doses and 17,248 second doses.

While Maine receives about 18,000 doses from the federal government each week, residents age 70 and older make up 193,000 of Maine’s 1.3 million population.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 35,638 cases of COVID-19, and 536 deaths. The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 525.7 on Thursday, compared to 618.1 a week ago and 419.4 a month ago.

In another change, the Maine Principals’ Association announced Wednesday that counties with the “yellow” designation will now be allowed to hold high school sports practices and games.

Cumberland, Oxford, Androscoggin and York counties are currently designated “yellow” and high school athletes haven’t been able to practice in person since early December. But officials determined that high school sports have been operating safely since fall, so they received the go-ahead from the state to resume sports.

“In many of these schools, the kids have been inactive for a considerable amount of time,” said Mike Burnham, MPA executive director, who stressed the decision covers all extracurricular activities, not just sports.

Currently, 182 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, with 54 in critical care.

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