Peter DiPietrantonio, DO, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Mid Coast Hospital’s vaccine clinic at Brunswick Landing. Photo courtesy of Mid Coast Hospital

State health officials Tuesday urged individuals age 50 and older to take advantage of record supplies of vaccine combined with open appointment slots to get inoculated this week against COVID-19.

“Do not let the virus get to you before a dose of vaccine does,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “For those of you 50 and over who have been waiting for your vaccine, this is your week. For those of you who … wanted to wait for when appointments were more available, this is your week.”

After months of COVID-19 vaccination slots disappearing nearly as quickly as they are posted, several of Maine’s highest-volume vaccination providers – including Northern Light Health and MaineGeneral Health – reported numerous openings this week. These come as Maine sees a more than 40 percent increase in vaccine doses shipped by the federal government.

During a briefing, Shah said it was too early to say whether vaccine hesitancy is a factor or whether people in the newly eligible 50-59 age group are struggling to schedule appointments amid jobs and busy family lives. But Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said the state is stepping up outreach and educational programs targeting that group.

Shah and Lambrew said demand for shots, appointment availability and vaccine supplies will all dictate whether Maine expands eligibility to all Mainers age 16 or older on April 19, as planned, or bumps up that timeframe.

“We want to get there, we are excited to get there and we are hopeful that with continued, higher supplies of vaccine doses that we can get there sooner than we expect,” Lambrew said. “But we do not know that until, No. 1, we see how well we do this week with people who are currently eligible and, No. 2, what that vaccine supply looks like.”

As of Tuesday morning, just over 31 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents – or 417,436 people – had received at least one dose of vaccine while 19.3 percent of the population, or 259,077 people, had received either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-shot vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.

Maine is on track to receive more than 72,000 initial vaccine doses this week – a nearly 47 percent increase over last week and more than double the distribution of just a few weeks earlier. That figure includes 45,200 distributed to health care providers through the Maine CDC, more than 23,000 to retail pharmacies and roughly 4,000 sent directly to federally qualified health centers.

The largest portion of that increase is attributable to the federal government flooding retail pharmacies nationwide with additional doses.

Shaw’s supermarkets joined Hannaford, Walgreens, Walmart and Sam’s Club locations this week in offering vaccinations through that federal retail pharmacy program in Maine. Starting Thursday, pharmacies at those locations will offer vaccination appointments to all Maine residents age 50 and older after focusing for several weeks on teachers and child care staff.

The increase in vaccine doses comes as Maine’s COVID-19 case count remains stubbornly high and at a time when many states are experiencing rising rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

On Tuesday, the Maine CDC reported 223 new cases of COVID-19 along with two additional deaths – a man and a woman, both in their 80s, from Penobscot and Oxford counties. To date, 738 deaths have been linked to COVID-19 in Maine among the 50,253 confirmed or probable cases tracked by Maine CDC since the coronavirus was first detected in the state last March.

Maine’s seven-day rolling average stood at 215, up from 200 a week ago and 173 four weeks ago, according to data from the Maine CDC.

Shah cited the emergence of several variants of COVID-19 – three of which have been detected in Maine – as among the “concerning things on the horizon.” At the same time, he said, new research published by the federal government Monday suggests that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are both roughly 90 percent effective at reducing the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 in “real-world situations” and also reduce the chance of harboring the virus at levels that could make a vaccinated person infectious to other people.

Throughout Tuesday’s briefing, Shah returned to his message of urging Mainers age 50 and older to take advantage of robust supplies.

“We know that so many of you have been waiting to get vaccinated,” Shah said. “I think the bottom line is this: We all want to get back to being Vacationland. But first, we have to become Vaccination-land. And this is the week to do it.”

Maine’s vaccination campaign is picking up pace thanks to those larger shipments of doses from the federal government.

Roughly 72 percent of Mainers age 60 or older had received at least one shot as of Monday evening while 46 percent of that group of nearly 400,000 individuals were fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the Maine CDC. Approximately 30 percent of Maine residents in their 50s had received at least one shot, although that group only became eligible for vaccination last Tuesday.

While vaccine supplies are still limited nationally, Maine is getting shots into arms at a faster pace than all but a handful of other states.

Maine ranked fifth nationally – behind New Mexico, Connecticut, South Dakota and Alaska – in terms of the percent of the population that has received at least one dose, and seventh in percentage that have completed their vaccination regimens, according to tracking by Bloomberg News.

Bloomberg’s estimate for the share of Maine’s population that has received one dose, 33.7 percent, is higher than Maine CDC’s estimate of 31.1 percent because of differences in calculation. Whereas Bloomberg includes Johnson & Johnson shots in that first-dose figure, the state only includes recipients of the single-shot J&J vaccine in the “final dose” category.

Hospitalizations among individuals with COVID-19 have remained relatively flat in Maine in recent weeks, with 78 people admitted statewide as of Tuesday morning, 24 of them in critical care beds and seven connected to ventilators.

As of last week, Maine CDC had not received any reports in more than a month of deaths within nursing homes or other long-term care settings, which have accounted for a disproportionate share of deaths throughout the pandemic. Shah said the state’s aggressive vaccination campaign at nursing homes was the key factor in slowing the spread among that particularly vulnerable population.

Meanwhile, many Maine schools are expanding the number of in-person instruction days, with some returning to five days a week. Elementary and middle school students in the state’s largest school district, Portland, will return to classrooms four days a week by the end of April but the city’s high schools will only have two days of in-person learning weekly.

Most schools in Maine have been operating under a hybrid format, with two days of in-person learning and three days of online school.

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