Sarah Robey, a physician assistant, prepares to give a shot during a small-scale drive-thru vaccination clinic at Wiscasset Family Medicine on Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine’s weekly average of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise even as the percentage of eligible residents who have received at least one vaccine shot nears 50 percent.

State health officials reported 296 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and one additional death, marking the 14th consecutive day that the number of new cases has topped 200. The seven-day, rolling average of new cases stood at 328 on Monday, compared with 280 one week ago and more than double this year’s lowest weekly average of 139 in late-February.

Hospitalizations and potential emergency room visits because of COVID-19 also are trending upward in Maine, consistent with the rising case numbers. And people under 30 continue to make up nearly half of the new cases.

Yet Maine’s vaccination campaign continues to expand, with more than 125,000 shots administered in the state last week and 45.7 percent of the population that is 16 or older having received at least one dose. On Tuesday, CVS will become the latest pharmacy chain to offer vaccinations in Maine through a federal retail pharmacy program, offering appointments at 10 locations in the state.

Meanwhile, the Mills administration launched a new mobile vaccination program in partnership with the federal government aimed at boosting access in rural or medically underserved communities.

“This unit will bring #vaccines closer to the arms of folks in Maine who need them,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Twitter after the mobile unit made its debut at the Oxford Casino, the first of 11 locations in the state where it will offer multiday clinics between now and June.

HOSPITALIZATIONS RISING

To date, the Maine CDC has reported 54,256 total confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since March 2020, as well as at least 751 deaths linked to the viral disease. Although case numbers continue to increase in Maine and many other states, the death rate tied to the coronavirus has slowed in Maine thanks, in large part, to the successful vaccination of the majority of people 60 and older.

The death announced Monday was identified as a man in his 70s from Kennebec County.

The average age of new COVID-19 cases in Maine continues to skew younger due to vaccination rates of older residents but also more transmission among those under 30. Ninety-three of the 296 cases reported Monday – or 31 percent of new infections – were among individuals under 20, while an additional 45 cases, or 15 percent, were people 20 to 29, according to Maine CDC data.

As of Monday morning, there were 98 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 – the most since mid-February – with 35 of those being cared for in intensive care units, compared to the 82 hospitalizations and 32 ICU patients reported last Monday.

Additionally, the percentage of hospital emergency department visits potentially linked to COVID-19 is gradually ticking upward again. For the seven-day period ending Sunday, 2.7 percent of the individuals visiting emergency rooms were symptomatic for COVID-19 compared to 1.7 percent for the period ending March 28.

NEW VACCINATION OPTIONS

Maine continues to vaccinate residents at a faster pace than all but a handful of states, although a dramatic decline in Johnson & Johnson doses this week will slow that pace in Maine and nationally.

As of Monday morning, health care providers had administered 894,295 doses of vaccine in the state, including 514,076 first doses to roughly 38 percent of Maine’s population of roughly 1.3 million people. Just over 28 percent of the state’s residents had received their final doses of vaccine as well, according to Maine CDC data.

Maine ranked fifth in the nation – behind New Hampshire, New Mexico, Connecticut and Massachusetts – in terms of the percentage of each state’s population that has received at least one dose of vaccine, according to tracking by Bloomberg News. Maine also ranked fifth in the percentage of the population that has received all shots necessary to achieve full vaccination.

Shah noted on Twitter that the state is averaging 17,882 doses per day. While that figure is likely to decline this week because of the national drop-off in J&J supplies, Shah said that more than one-third of all eligible Mainers 16 or older had completed their vaccination shots and that 70,509 of the shots delivered last week were final doses.

“That’s 70K people who, in 2 weeks, will be fully vaccinated,” Shah said in a tweet.

All Maine residents 16 or older are currently eligible for vaccination.

FEMA’s mobile vaccination unit held the first of four days of appointment-only clinics in the parking lot of Oxford Casino on Monday. Additional events will be held in 10 other towns and cities in Maine over the next two months: Windham from April 18-22, Biddeford from April 24-28, Fryeburg from April 30 – May 3, Turner from May 5-7, Waterville from May 9-12, Old Town from May 14-17, Milbridge from May 19-22, Calais from May 24-27, Madawaska from May 29 – June 2 and Auburn from June 9-12.

To check appointment availability at the Oxford site, local residents can call the state’s Community Vaccination Line at 888-445-4111. A list of other vaccination providers and sites statewide, as well as information on scheduling appointments, can be found at: maine.gov/covid19/vaccines/vaccination-sites.

DEBATE ON VACCINE DISTRIBUTION

Shipments of vaccine doses from the federal government to the Maine CDC were expected to decline this week, due in large part to a smaller national supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The Maine CDC expected to receive 36,690 doses of vaccine this week, which is the maximum amount authorized to the state under the federal government’s population-based distribution system. Though the Pfizer and Moderna allocations were expected to remain steady, the Maine CDC expected to receive roughly 18,000 fewer doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Similarly, pharmacies in Maine participating in the federal Retail Pharmacy Program were slated to receive nearly 20,000 fewer doses of vaccine this week as a result of the drastic weekly fluctuations in availability of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The federal government planned to allocate 14,420 doses – down from 34,190 last week – to pharmacies operated in Maine by Walmart/Sam’s Club, Walgreens, Hannaford, Shaw’s, CVS, Good Neighbor and MedShoppe.

Some states have reportedly not been ordering their full allotment of vaccine doses in recent weeks, sparking debate about whether the federal government should adjust its distribution formula.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that at least 13 states had left at least 100,000 doses unrequested, with some states letting 400,000 to 500,000 doses remain in federal stockpiles.

Some public health experts and elected officials have suggested that the federal government should quickly send additional vaccine doses to states experiencing large surges in cases. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, had asked the Biden administration to ship additional doses to hotspots in her state, which is experiencing among the most severe surges in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the state would welcome any additional doses.

“With demand continuing to outpace supply, with our ongoing efforts to vaccinate at-risk individuals, and with vaccinators prepared to deliver shots into arms across the state, Maine would gladly welcome an increase in vaccine from the federal government however we can get it,” Farwell said in a statement.

But federal officials reiterated on Monday that they plan to stick with the population-based distribution plan.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. CDC, said during a briefing that it takes weeks for vaccines to begin having an impact based on the body’s immune system response to the first dose. Instead, Walensky said states need to focus on controlling the spread of the virus by focusing on public health measures to “flatten the curve” by decreasing contact between people, testing and “shut things down.”

“I think if we tried to vaccinate our way out of what is happening in Michigan, we would be disappointed that it took so long for the vaccine to work, to actually have the impact,” Walensky said. “Similarly, we need that vaccine in other places. If we vaccinate today, we will have, you know, impact in six weeks, and we don’t know where the next place is going to be that is going to surge.”

Andy Slavitt, the White House’s senior adviser to the COVID-19 response team, compared shifting vaccine doses around between states to “playing Whack-a-Mole,” adding that “isn’t the strategy that public health leaders and scientists have laid out.”


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