James and Pat Cappelletti, front left, wait to receive their vaccinations against COVID-19 at a MaineHealth clinic in Westbrook Monday morning. Photo from video courtesy of MaineHealth

Public health officials in Maine are weeks away from launching a statewide website and telephone call center that will allow the state’s residents to register for a COVID-19 vaccination, even as demand for vaccine shots far outstrips supplies.

While multiple hospital systems have launched their own websites or hotlines in recent weeks, the state is still working on a “one-stop shop” allowing people to register, validate their eligibility, provide legal consent and then sign up for an appointment.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated it would likely be two to four weeks before either the online system or telephone call centers are launched.

Maine opted not to use a system launched in the midst of the pandemic by the federal government, known as the Vaccination Administration Management System, because Shah said it lacked full functionality. But the state’s limited number of vaccine clinics are being overwhelmed by calls and online requests from Mainers over age 70 who are now eligible for inoculation.

“I’m looking for one site that can do it all,” Shah said Tuesday. “I know it’s going to take time. I’m not thrilled about that. I know that everyone in Maine is not thrilled about that. It is unacceptable and we are working as hard as we can to make sure we get something in place. But I would also rather do it right than do it fast and slipshod.”

Shah noted, however, that Maine is still “severely vaccine constrained” because of the slower-than-anticipated pace of deliveries from the federal government. The roughly 18,000 doses of first-shot vaccine expected to be delivered to Maine this week is less than in December and will only make a small dent in the estimated 190,000 Mainers over age 70 who are now eligible for vaccination, much less other high-priority groups. State health officials estimate 50,000 weekly doses are needed to achieve widespread vaccination by summer.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it will seek to buy another 200 million doses of the two coronavirus vaccines, increasing the available supply by 50 percent and bringing the total to 600 doses by this summer.

As of Tuesday morning, 115,213 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered statewide. That figure includes 25,559 second or “booster” doses given to individuals who have now completed the two-shot regimen with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

“Hopefully by the time these systems are set up and fully operational, we will start seeing more and more vaccine coming into the state so we will have the happy union of access coupled with more vaccine,” Shah said. “But those days, those times are still a little bit ahead of us.”

Unfortunately, the enormous demand for vaccine, coupled with public confusion over how and where to sign up, has created opportunities for scam artists.

The Maine CDC has received numerous reports of individuals receiving calls – many from an 844 area code – from individuals claiming to be part of the agency’s contact-tracing team or calling to confirm a vaccine appointment. The callers then ask for Social Security numbers, which is not part of the contact-tracing process.

Shah recommended that people “be skeptical and exercise extreme caution,” urging them to ask for the person’s employee ID number and a follow-up contact number. In the case of callers asking for personal information as part of contact tracing, Shah recommended that skeptical individuals hang up and call the Maine CDC at 207-287-8016 and ask to speak to the contact tracing department.

Maine reported 662 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 additional deaths on Tuesday, representing sharp increases on both counts in recent days. While the Maine CDC often reports lower case numbers on weekends and at the beginning of the week, the seven-day rolling average of daily cases numbers is trending downward from a record high of 624 cases on Jan. 15 to 494 on Tuesday.

Worldwide, the number of COVID-19 cases eclipsed 100 million this week while the death toll in the U.S. alone was approaching 425,000 on Tuesday. As Shah noted during his briefing, that is more COVID-related deaths in the country in less than a year than all U.S. military deaths during World War II.

“The arrival of vaccines presents hope, but we still have much to do before vaccines present that hope to us in a way that reduces the number of deaths every day,” Shah said.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 37,708 cases of COVID-19, and 558 deaths. More than 60 percent of those deaths have been reported since Dec. 1.

Maine’s vaccination campaign is still in the early stages due to the constraints on supply.

Maine is still working its way through the estimated 143,000 health care workers, long-term care residents and staff, public safety employees and COVID-response workers included in the first phase of vaccinations, known as Phase 1A. Meanwhile, vaccinations of individuals age 70 or older – representing more than 190,000 residents – as part of Phase 1B started last week.

Health care systems are opening up new clinics and creating new hotline numbers as the state ramps up vaccinations of individuals age 70 or older. Many eligible individuals have been unable to make appointments, however, because demand for the vaccine far outstrips supply in Maine and nationwide.

After vaccinating Mainers 70 and older, Phase 1B will expand to residents with high-risk medical conditions, individuals between 65 and 69, and eventually some “essential front-line workers.” The Maine CDC has yet to identify which workers – such as teachers, grocery store employees and public transit workers – will be included in Phase 1B, and Shah said “it may be some time” before vaccine supplies are sufficient to begin vaccinating workers in that group.

Vaccinations of the general public are not expected until late-spring or summer at the current pace.

The lack of supply is crimping the vaccine rollout across the country, but Maine is doing better than the national average, according to the Bloomberg News vaccine tracker. As of Tuesday, Maine had administered 8.2 doses per 100 people, which is the 10th best in the nation. The national average is 7.1 per 100 people. Alaska at 13.4 doses per 100 people and West Virginia at 11.5 doses per 100 people are the top states for vaccinating their residents.

Also on Monday, the first drive-thru vaccination clinic in southern Maine was held at a site in Brunswick for those with intellectual disabilities and the staff who care for them. About 170 people associated with the Independence Association got their shots, with an average wait time of about two hours.

Plans are also in the works for multiple mass-vaccination sites around Maine. MaineHealth plans to open a high-volume vaccination site – capable of administering at least 1,000 shots per day once supplies allow – in the indoor grandstand of the former Scarborough Downs harness racing track by the beginning of February.

Nationwide, the number of COVID-19 cases has been trending downward from a peak of 300,000 new cases a day on Jan. 8 to roughly 155,000 reported on Monday. But while the number of new cases nationwide has fallen 31 percent during the past two weeks, the number of additional deaths reported daily among individuals with COVID-19 has only fallen by 3 percent, according to tracking by The New York Times.

Maine continues to have the nation’s third-lowest infection rate – 2,756 cases for every 100,000 residents – behind Hawaii and Vermont as well as the fourth-lowest death rate during the pandemic behind Hawaii, Vermont and Alaska, according to The New York Times.

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