The mass vaccination site at the Portland Expo will close on June 18, becoming the third site to recently announce a shutdown as Maine removes its masking mandate for nearly everyone and shifts from large-scale clinics to smaller-scale COVID-19 vaccinations.

The shift in vaccination strategy comes as Gov. Janet Mills has repealed the mask mandate as of May 24 for everyone in the state, whether they are vaccinated or not, except children 5 and older in school or day care. The executive order Mills signed Wednesday goes further than the guidance she issued last week that said people who are not fully vaccinated should wear face coverings in indoor public settings.

Businesses can impose mask mandates and physical distancing rules if they choose to do so, but they’re no longer mandated by the state, officials told The Associated Press. The administration is still recommending that unvaccinated Mainers wear a mask indoors even though it’s not required.

Northern Light Mercy Hospital’s announcement that it was closing the Portland Expo site came on the same day that the Scarborough Downs vaccination site closed and a week before the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor is slated to give its last doses.

“This clinic has truly been a community effort,” said Melissa Skahan, vice president of mission integration at Northern Light Mercy Hospital, which operates the Expo site. The Expo has vaccinated about 21,000 people since it opened March 2.

Immunizations through Northern Light, which also operates the Cross Insurance Center clinic, will shift to primary care practices, pharmacies and walk-in clinics.

It’s a similar shift in focus playing out across the state, including at the Scarborough Downs site.

At the former harness racing track on Thursday, staff and volunteers for MaineHealth, which operated the site, conducted a roll call for the final afternoon shift to serve 309 patients. In a back room at the Downs, team leader Brian Richardson called out names and assigned duties. At its peak, the site put up to 2,500 shots in arms every day, and in total has vaccinated about 90,000 people. A banner read, “Thanks for All You Do.”

“We are closing because we did our job,” said Ellie Foster, a pod team leader at Scarborough Downs. “This is more sweet than bitter. We put ourselves out of business.”

Foster’s job – which was heavy on the logistics side of making sure things ran smoothly at the Downs – seemed similar to a traffic officer, warehouse manager and ambulance dispatcher rolled into one. She carried a radio, phone and whistle, and wore an orange and yellow vest suitable for a construction worksite so people could easily spot her in the large building.

“It was the most intense thing I’ve ever done,” Foster said. “I had to learn things on the fly and trust my gut.” She said there was never a day while the mass vaccine clinic was in operation that people had to wait in long lines to get a vaccine.

Dr. Scot Remick, chief of oncology at the MaineHealth Cancer Care Network, was the medical director at the Downs, and he was usually on-site two days per week. Remick monitored patients for allergic reactions or anxiety-related reactions, and helped determine if patients who had complex medical conditions or a history of allergies should get the vaccine, or when would be the right time to give them their shot.

Remick said there were very few allergic reactions, and most of them could be handled with Benadryl. The anxiety-related reactions, such as fainting, could usually be resolved with rest, cold packs and water.

Remick said EpiPens for severe allergic reactions were on hand, but he doesn’t believe they were needed.

“This is an extremely effective and safe vaccine,” Remick said. “It is really remarkable how quick we had this vaccine to use.”

Wendy Osgood, a vice president at Maine Medical Center who helped operate the Downs site, said staff learned how to run the clinic from emergency management techniques, the kind of disaster preparedness that goes into getting ready for medical responses to disasters like hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.

“Now we are planning the next phase of vaccination, such as in schools and pop-up vaccine sites,” Osgood said of the work to bring the vaccine to places where young adults are likely to congregate, such as concerts and other social gatherings. About 41 percent of Maine people eligible for the vaccine under age 40 have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, compared to 68 percent of those 40 and older.

An additional nine people died of COVID-19 in Maine on Thursday and the state reported 219 new cases.

Eight of the nine deaths resulted from a review of recently filed death certificates, Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said in a statement. The deaths occurred between April 30 and May 9.

Maine continues to have a stable case count, with the numbers in the low 200s for the past six days. The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 215.1 on Thursday, compared to 266.9 a week ago and 451.6 a month ago.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 66,534 cases of COVID-19 and 816 deaths.

Across the state, 104 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, with 38 in critical care beds.

Meanwhile, the state is edging closer to having 50 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents fully vaccinated, with 654,984 people, or 48.7 percent of the population, getting final doses through Thursday. Also, 687,229 people, or 51.1 percent of the population, have received at least their first dose.

Nearly 2,000 people have taken advantage of a Maine incentive program for people to get their shots.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said that 1,739 people have received an incentive in the “Your Shot to Get Outdoors” program, which is available to adults who are being immunized through May 31. The incentives include a $20 L.L. Bean gift card, Maine hunting and fishing licenses, a Maine Wildlife Park pass, a Maine state park day pass, an Oxford Plains Speedway ticket and a Sea Dogs ticket.

One week into the program, the most popular choice is the L.L. Bean gift card, with 734 people, followed by 455 people choosing a fishing license and 174 picking a Maine Wildlife Park pass.

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