Maine’s updated plan to vaccinate residents against COVID-19 based entirely on age drew mixed reactions from industries that had been holding out hope their workers might soon move to the front of line.

Within the state’s hospitality industry, there’s little doubt that a majority of the workers will have to wait till late spring or early summer under the state’s new age-based plan in which those in their 60s will be eligible next week, followed by those 50 and over in April, 40 and over in May, and 30 and over in June. People younger than 30 will be targeted in July and beyond.

“It’s still a 25-to-40 versus a 50-to-65 demographic, there’s no question,” said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine, the state’s largest association of restaurants, bars and lodging businesses.

The state already has authorized vaccines for those 70 and older, and starting next Wednesday, Mainers who are 60 or older will become eligible for their first dose of the vaccine, which protects against severe symptoms from the virus that’s claimed half a million American lives, including more than 700 in Maine.

The state’s decision to do away with prioritizing front-line workers in favor of age brackets was a blow to teachers, particularly with increased pressure to reopen schools. Gov. Janet Mills said Friday that although teachers will not be prioritized as a workforce category, the state will make efforts to bring vaccination clinics to districts to inoculate teachers who are age-eligible.

“We understand how difficult this is for everyone,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union. “Having educators prioritized within these bands by providing dedicated vaccination opportunities to expedite their receiving a COVID-19 vaccine will provide additional safety for our educators, our students and our communities.”

To date, 31 states have opened vaccine eligibility for teachers, according to Education Week.

Dugal said hospitality workers have been on the front lines dealing with customers throughout the pandemic and their ability to stay on the job keeping the doors open, often in limited capacities, is critical to keeping Maine’s economy on track.

“So they are in harm’s way, and when you look at a restaurant, how many places do you go where a worker is dealing with a person with no mask? The only other place I can think of where that happens on a regular basis is a dental office,” he said. “There’s no question in our mind that (hospitality workers) should be moved to the front of the line.”

Briana Volk, the owner of Portland’s Hunt and Alpine Club, took to Twitter on Friday to voice her disappointment, noting that her restaurant would remain closed. She also worried about friends and peers who work in unsafe environments, some of whom have contracted COVID-19.

“By allowing restaurants and bars to be open for indoor dining and not vaccinating the workers, Maine is telling all of us that the people who are the reason for one of the largest industries in our state aren’t as important as that sweet, sweet out-of-state tourist cash,” Volk tweeted.

And while some like Volk were deeply disappointed in Friday’s news, Dugal acknowledged that the new plan adds clarity to Maine’s vaccine distribution policy and could streamline efforts going forward.

“The timetable they’ve put forth is pretty aggressive,” he said. “If they can achieve that timetable, for all intents and purposes by the time the real busy time hits maybe everyone will be a vaccinated.”

Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, agreed with Dugal that the plan presented Friday does add clarity and ease confusion over who will be eligible for the vaccine and when.

“I’m glad the administration is being clear about what the plan is going forward,” Picard said. “And deciding to go by an aged-based system, I guess, is understandable.”

Still, Picard said there were some 80,000 workers in Maine’s retail industry, working in big and small stores across the state, and like those in the hospitality industry they have remained on the front lines dealing with the public throughout the pandemic.

He said other questions about the vaccine, including advice and recommendations for how those who are vaccinated can behave and what requirements the state will have for visitors who have been vaccinated for this coming summer were still largely unanswered.

Picard said now that Mills has been vaccinated he would like to see the governor “out and about a little bit more in the public” to help rebuild consumer confidence that those who are vaccinated can fully participate in the economy again.

Christine Cummings, the executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said her industry also was glad to have a clearer picture on how vaccines would be distributed.

“Throughout the whole pandemic it’s been a challenge with ever-changing policies to have a good grasp and ability to plan and move forward,” Cummings said. “Regardless of the fact that it doesn’t prioritize specific front-line tiers any longer, it at least gives these businesses and folks a clearer path forward.”

Others who offered mixed reaction to the new vaccine plan included the state government’s largest labor union, Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989.

“We appreciate the governor’s age-based approach is meant to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of  people in the shortest amount of time,” Jeff McCabe, a spokesman for the union said Friday. “The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the sooner Maine’s economy can get back on track.”

But McCabe also noted that many front-line state workers who have been working throughout the pandemic – including child protective caseworkers in the Department of Health and Human Services, state police crime lab analysts and DOT plow drivers – would not be quickly eligible for vaccinations.

As an example, McCabe said child protective workers often visit jails or hospitals as part of their work – worksites where they now may be the only workers not vaccinated.

“They are doing their jobs at considerable risk to themselves and their families,” McCabe said. “Yet they continue to lack access to vaccinations that have been provided to first responders with whom they regularly work sometimes on a daily basis.”

The state’s two largest health care organizations, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, threw their support behind the aged-based plan.

“The incidence of serious illness and death increases with age, and prioritizing in this way is a straightforward and sound way to allocate vaccine to those most at risk,” Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer of MaineHealth, the state’s largest health system, said in a prepared statement. 

Dr. James Jarvis, physician leader for incident command at Northern Light Health, said the new plan removes complex barriers for distributing the vaccine.

“In the end, with a limited supply of vaccine, efficiency and ease of operations will serve our communities and fellow Mainers better than any other approach allowing us to vaccinate all Mainers faster,” he said.


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