U.S. Army veteran Roger Anctil of Lewiston receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sandy Masters on Thursday at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. Anctil, 86, and his wife, Jeanne, both received their first of two doses on Jeanne Anctil’s 87th birthday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Maine confirmed Thursday that it will receive an extra 1,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses from the federal government next week, adding to the cautious optimism created by the state’s declining case numbers.

The Biden administration is ramping up vaccine shipments and Maine will receive a total of 22,475 doses for the state immunization program next week. That’s an increase of 1,000 doses over this week. In addition, Maine will receive 4,300 to 4,800 doses to be given at Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies under a separate federal partnership that will eventually expand to include other retail pharmacies.

Maine logged 175 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and the seven-day daily average of new cases continues to plummet even as Maine detected the arrival of the United Kingdom variant Wednesday. The seven-day daily average was 217.9 on Thursday, a level not seen since late November and early December and well below the average of 298.4 a week ago and 520.7 a month ago.

Overall, Maine has recorded 42,058 cases of COVID-19 and 641 deaths. No additional deaths were reported Thursday. The last time Maine didn’t report any deaths was Jan. 31, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said there are some reasons for optimism – including reduced case counts, hospitalizations and deaths – but at the same time the new U.K. variant is worrisome because it is more contagious and may cause more severe cases.

“The good news is always counterbalanced by concerning news,” Shah said. “We have concerns that folks might let their guard down, which allows space for the variant to run rampant.”

Shah said families traveling to Florida for February school vacation next week should know that the U.K. variant is most prevalent in Florida, and that Maine’s travel restrictions still apply. People returning from travel to all states except Vermont and New Hampshire must quarantine for 10 days or produce a negative test within 72 hours prior to returning to Maine.

Virus prevalence in Florida is more than twice the rate in Maine, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute, with Maine at 15 cases per 100,000 population, compared to 35.3 cases per 100,000 in Florida. Only four states had lower rates of the virus than Maine, while Florida is 13th worst in the nation for the number of virus cases per capita.

The state’s vaccination program continues to expand, with 215,892 doses given, including 155,872 first doses and 60,020 second doses. Nearly 12 percent of the Maine population has received at least the first dose of the vaccine. Cumberland County has the highest vaccination rate, with 13.65 percent of people having received at least the first dose. The slowest vaccination rollout is in Somerset County, with 6.5 percent getting the first dose.

This week more vaccines started rolling in, both with a new federal partnership with retail pharmacies that is bringing an extra 4,300 to 4,800 doses to Maine weekly, and the 1,000 extra doses for next week for the state vaccination program.

Combined with the federal retail pharmacy program, the state will receive about 27,000-plus doses next week. This is still well short of the 50,000 doses needed per week to eliminate most supply problems, but represents a roughly 50 percent increase from the 18,000 doses the state was receiving late last month.

The retail pharmacy vaccination program in Maine is being operated at 24 Walmart and Sam’s Club locations, but the website to take appointments for those 70 and older has had technical difficulties since it launched Tuesday night. Still, some were able to make appointments, and vaccinations at Walmart and Sam’s Club will begin Friday.

Walmart spokeswoman Rebecca Thomason said on Thursday that the “team is gradually bringing the (website) back online. We believe everything is still a go for (Friday).”

Supply constraints slow down as Maine moves to different phases of the vaccination program, Shah has said. Currently, Maine is vaccinating those 70 and older and finishing up Phase 1A, which includes health care workers, public safety employees, and residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted-living centers. In early March, Maine is expected to begin vaccinating those 65 to 69.

Still unknown is when essential front-line workers, including teachers, postal service employees, grocery store clerks and others will get their shots.

As the Biden administration makes a push to reopen more schools, the U.S. CDC said Thursday that recommendations for school reopenings would be announced Friday.

Most Maine schools allow students to attend in-person for part of the week, usually two days, although Portland High School and Deering High School are fully remote for grades 10-12. Portland Public Schools is considering having more in-person instruction at the high schools, and will discuss the topic at a board meeting Feb. 26.

The U.K. variant detected in Maine, known as B.1.1.17, was carried by a resident of Franklin County with a recent history of international travel.

“We recognize the concern this may cause, given that the B.1.1.7 variant appears to spread more easily,” Shah said in a statement Wednesday. “Given the number of cases already detected in other states, we expected the variant to arrive in Maine and have been on the lookout for it.”

Currently, 100 people in Maine are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 22 in intensive care.

In the retail pharmacy program to immunize nursing home and long-term care staff and residents, which has run into logistical problems, Walgreens had completed all of its nursing homes and 163 of 164 long-term care facilities as of Tuesday. CVS had completed all of its nursing homes and first doses for all of its 170 long-term care facilities.

But Shah said on Thursday that some of the long-term care facilities set to be immunized by retail pharmacies had instead been shifted to independent pharmacies, although he didn’t have additional details. A month ago, Maine stopped giving additional weekly doses to Walgreens and CVS and instead allocated thousands of doses to independent pharmacies to do vaccinations at long-term care facilities.

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