More women than men are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in Maine and across the nation – a gender gap that reflects the priority groups targeted in the first months of the vaccine rollout, and one that could persist if men don’t change their health care habits.

Women account for 63 percent of Mainers and 59 percent of all Americans who have been fully vaccinated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. CDC.

That’s a shift from early surveys that indicated women were more reluctant than men to be vaccinated, including a Pew Research Center poll last November that found 54 percent of women and 67 percent of men would definitely/probably be vaccinated.

A significant portion of the vaccination gap is likely because women make up 76 percent of all health care workers, a group that was given first priority when the nationwide rollout began in mid-December.

Women also make up a larger part of the long-term care population, the other top-priority group, constituting 66 percent of the nursing home residents in Maine and 70 percent of the state’s assisted-living residents, according to the U.S. CDC. Nationwide, women make up 70 percent of nursing home residents and 76 percent of assisted-living residents.

“Women outnumber men in health care settings,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who is the chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care network. She’s also a former head of the Maine CDC and sister of Gov. Janet Mills.

“But we’re not going to see the gender gap melt away anytime soon,” Mills said, noting that women also make up a significant portion of teachers, school staff and child care workers who became eligible for vaccination last week.

Mills also pointed to multiple studies that have shown women tend to engage in health care more readily than men and often are the health care decision makers in families. Studies attribute women’s comfort with health care interactions to earlier experiences with medical providers for reproductive health care and long-standing social mores that influence gender roles and behaviors.

Mills said she has noticed more women than men being inoculated at MaineHealth’s mass vaccination clinic at Scarborough Downs, where she works several days a week as a vaccinator.

“When I see men come in, it’s often with their wives,” Mills said. “I see women coming in alone, but I haven’t seen that many men coming in alone.”

Maine’s vaccine eligibility expanded last week beyond health care workers, public safety responders, critical COVID-19 infrastructure personnel, and people 70 and older. It now includes people 60 and older, teachers, school staff and child care workers. People 50 and older are scheduled to become eligible in April, followed by 40 and older in May, 30 and older in June and all ages in July.

Neither Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, nor Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, responded to a request for an interview Monday.

So far, 152,512 people, or 11 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents, have been fully vaccinated, and only 36 percent of them are men. Gender information wasn’t available for less than 1 percent of the people vaccinated.

As the rollout continues, the gender gap will likely persist because many men don’t prioritize health care until illness is debilitating, Mills said.

A 2019 national survey by the Cleveland Clinic found that only 50 percent of men engage in preventive health care and 41 percent said they were told as children that men don’t complain about health issues. Twenty percent admitted they had not been completely honest with their doctor in the past, saying they were either embarrassed, didn’t want to hear that they needed to change their diet or lifestyle, or knew something was wrong but weren’t ready to face the diagnosis.

Mills said Maine’s inoculation effort will have to target persistent gaps and hold clinics wherever there might be unvaccinated people, including major employers such as Bath Iron Works. She noted that in Israel, cities set up vaccination clinics in bars and restaurants.

“We need to start thinking about it now, because the gender gap likely will continue,” Mills said. “We’ll have to go where they are.”


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