AUGUSTA — MaineGeneral Health board members are largely staying quiet in the wake of reports that their pilot COVID-19 vaccine program gave handpicked donors and former staff members access to inoculations before members of the public, even as several local residents are raising alarms that they can’t get through the hospital’s appointment system.

Referring to those reports during a Tuesday news briefing, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said questions have been raised about equity in MaineGeneral’s handling of vaccinations.

“I have not had independent conversations with anyone at MaineGeneral, so I don’t have primary knowledge of the facts at hand,” Shah said. “There are so many different ways in which trust is essential in the process going forward. An equal piece of this is trust in the process. These perceptions of trust and favoritism raises concern.”

The Bangor Daily News reported Sunday that Augusta-based MaineGeneral offered early vaccination to donors and former staff before the public was offered registration.

MaineGeneral spokeswoman Joy McKenna said in an interview with the Kennebec Journal that the 40 people were part of a “‘Day in the Life’ test of the process” and received vaccinations, and 12 of the 40 were donors to the hospital system. McKenna said no members of the board were involved in the vaccination clinic and that the “Day in the Life” process has been conducted through all of the hospital’s major projects, starting with the Cancer Center back in 2007.

“In hindsight, had we known that this was going to be perceived this way, we would have done things differently,” McKenna said. “We never intended to give anyone any privileged access.”

Jim LaLiberty, chairman of MaineGeneral Health’s board of directors, defended the vaccination clinic by saying it achieved its goals, uncovering some administrative issues and allowing future clinics to be conducted more efficiently. He said being a donor to the hospital was “not a criteria” to be included in the pilot program, and that people were selected based on their ability to “provide useful feedback.”

“That donors were included is a reflection of the large number of donors and supporters we have and is coincidental, nothing more,” LaLiberty said. “MaineGeneral complied with all applicable Federal and State CDC guidelines in administering this pilot project, and we are fully committed to an equitable and transparent distribution of the vaccine to all who are eligible, without privilege or favor to anyone.”

While most of the 17 board members remained quiet or nonresponsive when contacted by the Kennebec Journal this week, Barbara Mayer said the questions about equity did not put the organization in “the best light.”

Underlining the perception of privileged access, the hospital’s philanthropy director reportedly contacted one past donor about participating in the vaccination clinic because of their previous support.

“Maybe having the philanthropy department (call) may not have been such a good idea,” Mayer said. “I would be surprised if anyone thought it (was).”

Meanwhile, several local senior citizens have told the Kennebec Journal in recent days that they have struggled to successfully make a COVID-19 vaccination appointment through the MaineGeneral program. Some residents reported making more than 100 calls to the vaccination hotline and being put on hold for hours.

Mayer said she spoke with hospital CEO Chuck Hays about the vaccine and he asked her if she was interested in receiving it.

“My husband is quite elderly,” the 75-year-old Mayer said. “I did have a conversation (with Hays) that (he) did ask if I was interested because of my husband’s age. (I don’t know) whether or not that was due to our age and situation or due to my membership on the board.”

McKenna said MaineGeneral contacted “40 people associated with the organization — former employees, former volunteers and others who met the age-70-or-older criteria, many of whom are familiar with the ‘Day in the Life’ exercise that we have done — to help us see if our planning held up in practice.” All of the participants met CDC guidelines, she said.

Mayer said she was eventually vaccinated through the Bangor-based Northern Light system and her husband was vaccinated through the Veteran’s Affairs medical system. Mayer said the system at the VA ranked patients based on their susceptibility to have serious complications related to COVID-19, instead of being a call-in registration with limited slots.

Despite her conversation with Hays, Mayer said there was never indication during board meetings that members would receive the vaccine.

Mayer said the hospital has a history of careful planning for new programs, and the handpicking of those close to the hospital could have granted officials better feedback about the process. She said she would be “very, very concerned” if people who made donations could get to the beginning of the line for public vaccination clinics, which she said should be distinguished from the test of 40 people.

Mayer said she would be curious to see how CEOs of other hospital systems are reacting to requests from donors to have access to the vaccines.

“It’s chaotic across the country, and I don’t think Maine is an exception to that,” she said. “I think it’s chaotic and difficult.”

McKenna said the hospital understands that “people are disappointed in the way we conducted the test of the community vaccination system” and feels “terrible about it.”

But “we received feedback from this group that we needed some additional wayfinding signage,” McKenna said, referring to the clinic of selected participants. “We also found a few paperwork issues and recognized how to minimize those issues. We specifically chose people who could look with a critical eye and provide feedback as to how we could improve our processes.”

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