The Augusta Civic Center, seen here in April 2020, could potentially be the site of a mass vaccination clinic. State, city and health officials have been considering whether establishing a a vaccination clinic would impact the Legislature’s ability to meet there. City officials have noted the facility can easily accommodate both uses. Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal file photo

AUGUSTA — The Augusta Civic Center could be the site of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site, but plans are still being discussed by city, state and MaineGeneral officials.

The city is ready to have at least part of the city-owned facility turned into a vaccination site at any time, City Manager William Bridgeo said, but there is not yet enough vaccine coming to Maine to warrant such an operation.

Bridgeo told Augusta city councilors Thursday that state officials have been hesitant to sign off on such a proposal, partly due to concern a public vaccination site could interfere with the potential for the state Legislature to assemble there.

The current legislative session began in December with legislators being sworn into office inside the expansive auditorium of the Augusta Civic Center ,where there is more space to accommodate social distancing needs for that large group of people than in the Maine State House.

Legislators may also return to the Civic Center to meet as an entire body later in the session, in order to meet together as safely as possible during the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions meant to limit its spread.

Bridgeo said officials are working on a plan to use the north wing of the Civic Center, beginning as soon as the week of Feb. 15 for smaller-scale vaccination clinics. But, he said, state officials — who have the ultimate say in where mass public clinics would take place — have been hesitant to choose the location for larger scale operations.

“Ultimately our goal would be to have the (state Center for Disease Control) approve the use of the main auditorium, when there is sufficient vaccine available to allow for up to 1,000 vaccinations a day at the facility, which we know we can handle quite comfortably,” Bridgeo said. “My understanding is there has been some hesitancy on the part of the state executive branch to preempt the Legislature’s ability to use the Civic Center by committing to an inoculation facility there.

“The director of the Civic Center and I have assured the decision-makers in the executive branch and the legislative branch the Civic Center certainly has the capacity to accommodate both, and that in our opinion right now nothing is more important than standing up a mass inoculation center for this part of Maine,” he added. “There has been some back and forth on that and I think that may have slowed the process down.”

Before the pandemic, Bridgeo said, the Civic Center has regularly hosted sporting events and trade shows and meetings on consecutive days. He said it can simultaneously host both the Legislature and a vaccination clinic.

“Our people at the Civic Center can host a 7,000 person rock concert until midnight one night then be ready at 7 o’clock the next morning to host a trade show and banquets and other activities without skipping a beat, so we certainly can manage this,” Bridgeo said.

Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said officials are considering the facility.

“The Augusta Civic Center is under consideration as a potential location for a high-volume vaccination site in central Maine, and the Administration is optimistic that it would be able to pursue that site as it also accommodates the legislature,” she said in an email. “We look forward to working with local officials in the coming days and weeks to operationalize vaccination sites in central Maine and across the state.”

Farwell did not answer other questions about any concerns the state might have about a site at the civic center or it being run by MaineGeneral.

Joy McKenna, director of marketing and communications for MaineGeneral Health, said the health system is working with the state CDC to find an appropriate mass vaccination site in Augusta, and the Civic Center is an option. She said the state selects the sites for such clinics, and MaineGeneral would run the clinical aspects of the vaccination effort.

McKenna said MaineGeneral is ready to transition to larger community vaccination clinics “as soon as the selection process is complete.” She said the plan is to be able to scale up operations, and add staff as necessary, to be able to administer up to 1,000 doses of vaccine a day as the vaccine becomes available.

McKenna said she could not speak to concerns the state may have about using the Civic Center. With its separate entrances and ability to be sectioned off, she said, the Civic Center would allow for legislative sessions and a vaccination clinic to take place at the same time. McKenna added that it has plenty of space for social distancing and parking, and is right off Interstate 95 for easy access.

Christine Kirby, communications director for the office of state Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said their understanding was MaineGeneral would be conducting a vaccination clinic in the north wing of the Civic Center.

McKenna said the hospital’s current plan is to continue with its smaller vaccination clinics, which started this week, at the hospital’s Alfond Center for Health. She said by the end of a planned Saturday clinic, they expect to have administered 480 first-dose vaccines to eligible community members age 70 and older, and next week they expect to have enough to vaccinate another 900 people. McKenna said the health system is currently registering people for those clinics.

MaineGeneral’s COVID-19 vaccination programs have gotten off to a rocky start, with some area residents saying they couldn’t get through on a phone line to register despite calling for hours, and also facing criticism because some donors to the hospital, whom hospital officials said met the current requirements to receive the vaccine, were offered vaccine shots as part of an initial trial run of 40 doses of the vaccine.

Bridgeo said those issues do not give him any concerns about MaineGeneral’s ability to run a mass vaccination clinic at the Civic Center.

“None whatsoever,” he said. “I have a very high level of confidence in MaineGeneral’s administration and medical capabilities.”

Using the center as a vaccination clinic could provide some revenues — as the state Legislature’s use of the facility has already — to a facility that has struggled financially since the pandemic struck.

Bridgeo said the state should have federal COVID relief funds available that could underwrite the cost of the vaccination clinics, so the city would expect to be compensated for the building’s use. That is a secondary concern, he stressed, saying the city would still offer the space if no funding is available.

The state is being charged $4,025 for each day the state Legislature uses its main auditorium. The vaccination clinic charge would vary depending on what parts of the facility are used.

The Augusta Fire Department has been administering COVID-19 vaccine shots to public safety workers in the region, in a clinic set up at Hartford Fire Station. Fire Chief Dave Groder said the department had three clinics for public safety workers this week, averaging between 40 and 50 people at each. Another is planned Saturday.

Battalion Chief Steve Leach, who is overseeing the department’s inoculations, said discussions with MaineGeneral officials have indicated Augusta Fire’s vaccination team will not be involved initially, but could be later if additional resources are needed.

So far mass vaccination sites have opened in Maine in Scarborough and Bangor, with another under consideration in Sanford. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said recently he expects that mass vaccination clinics would open in the Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta areas as vaccine supplies ramp up.

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