Health officials and medical providers are exploring the next steps in Maine’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign as plummeting demand for shots means it could be months before the state achieves widespread inoculation – if it ever does.

Maine’s vaccination rates of 57.7 percent for all residents and 65.5 percent for those old enough to get shots is among the highest in the nation alongside its New England neighbors. Yet the pace of vaccinations in Maine has slowed to the point where the total vaccine doses administered in Maine for all of last week — roughly 8,500 — was one-half to one-third of the number delivered on many single days in April and May.

At the current pace, it would take another four months to achieve a vaccination rate of 75 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents, according to tracking and projections by Bloomberg. Vermont, on the other hand, could hit that target in one month while Massachusetts and Connecticut could reach 75 percent within two months, according to the estimates.

Faced with softening – even cratering – demand, officials with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the state’s health care networks are conducting a “deep dive” to better understand who has yet to be vaccinated, the reasons why and how best to reach them.

“My goal for the next phase of vaccination, if I had to summarize it, it is going to be typified by removing barriers: removing barriers for people who want to get vaccinated, for doctor’s offices who want to order vaccine, so on and so forth,” said Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah.

Gone are the days of mass vaccination events administering several thousand shots in a day, although some of those clinics —such as one at Auburn Mall operated by Central Maine Health Care — continue to offer vaccinations either by appointment or to walk-ins.


Also, a growing number of primary care physicians are offering vaccinations in more personal, private settings for those who have opted not to take advantage of the no-appointment, walk-in jabs available for months at retail pharmacies and hospital clinics statewide.

Summer is fair and festival season in Maine, and Mainers can expect to see vaccination stations offered at some – but not all – of the popular events that are returning this year after a 2020 without funnel cakes, pig racing and live music.

At the North Atlantic Blues Festival, which returns to the Rockland waterfront on July 10-11, free vaccines will be available from 6:30-10 p.m. during Saturday evening’s “Club Crawl” near the park on Main Street. Rockland’s main drag is closed to traffic and the public is allowed to stroll the music-filled street for free during the crawl.

Festival organizer Paul Benjamin said he worked with city and county leaders to set up the vaccination station, which will offer both the “one and done” shot produced by Johnson & Johnson as well as the first shot of Pfizer for anyone 12 or over. Those who do will receive a free book and DVD about the blues festival.

“There are probably 4,000 to 5,000 people down there,” Benjamin said of the free Saturday night portion of the festival. “There are a lot of families so we decided it would be a great place to offer COVID shots.”

Officials with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry also plan to talk about the issue with representatives of Maine’s more than 20 agricultural fairs. Those fairs, which kicked off this month in Monmouth, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors, many from rural areas where vaccination rates are considerably lower than in southern and coastal Maine.


Leon Brillant, president of the Topsham Fair, said organizers met recently with representatives of Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. Although details have yet to be ironed out for the fair, which takes place August 10-15, Brillant said he was “pretty sure we will do something” for the event, which typically pulls in 28,000 to 30,000 spectators.

“We want to do it,” Brillant said. “It’s a good thing.”

For health care providers, this next phase of the vaccination campaign will be about “trying everything – like throwing spaghetti against the wall,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth. While that spaghetti won’t always stick, Mills said, even the less-fruitful ventures can be educational.

For instance, MaineHealth vaccinated a total of 20 people during two recent Summer Sunsets Live music events that drew about 1,000 people each night to Thompson’s Point in Portland. MaineHealth’s trailer was located in a high-traffic area and well promoted throughout an event that catered to a younger crowd that likely included include a fair number of unvaccinated people, based on Maine CDC data.

“We were the only place without a line,” Mills said with a laugh.

Mills, who is a former Maine CDC director and the sister of Gov. Janet Mills, said as she watched the crowd of mostly young people she realized not many would be interested in peeling off from their group to sit for a shot, plus the 15-minute post-jab monitoring period. And she couldn’t blame them, given the social aspect of the evening.


“It wasn’t a mistake and I’m glad we did it,” Mills said. “We did learn some good lessons – like maybe a concert is not the best venue.”

Instead, MaineHealth has found more success staging pop-up clinics at breweries and other businesses in both the Portland area as well as parts of the state with lower vaccination rates. Mills said in these smaller venues, people may be more likely to at least stop by the table to ask questions about the vaccines even if they don’t necessarily get the shot that day.

Likewise, Northern Light Homecare and Hospice is working with businesses and event organizers to stage pop-up clinics around the state. Recent events have been held at speedways, an ice cream shop, a seafood shack, the Bangor Pride observances, a recovery center and a YMCA.

Northern Light spokeswoman Karen Cashman said the network is also working with EMS agencies and other partners to vaccinate homebound individuals around the state as well as to hold clinics for homeless individuals through a program organized by the South Portland Fire Department.

“We look forward to continuing to serve our community by making vaccines available to all who want to be vaccinated,” Cashman said. “Moving forward, Northern Light Health’s focus is offering COVID-19 vaccinations in more personalized, localized, and easily accessible settings such as primary care offices, walk-in care, women’s health, pediatrics, as well as smaller clinic settings to help underserved communities.”

While the numbers are small compared to the large-scale clinics during the spring, event organizers say it is progress nonetheless. About 20 people took advantage of a vaccination event at the June 10 Portland Sea Dogs game, for instance, and received free food as well as a free ticket to a future game.


Geoff Iacuessa, president and general manager of the Sea Dogs, said the staff from Northern Light’s Mercy Hospital told him that “20 is better than zero and every little bit helps.”

“We are hoping to do at least one more prior to the end of the season but really we are open to doing as many as they want to do,” Iacuessa said. “They did all of the heavy lifting. We just provided the room to them.”

Shah, the Maine CDC director, said his agency is working closely with doctor’s offices to help them get vaccine doses. Whereas in the past groups of primary care offices had to commit to doing 1,000 doses a week because of scant supplies of vaccine, now the Maine CDC is able to ship as few as 20 doses a week to offices that request them.

Shah said the Maine CDC also will be analyzing data, conducting surveys and potentially holding focus groups to get a better sense of who in Maine is still unvaccinated and why. Speaking during last week’s briefing, Shah said there are still barriers that have discouraged or prevented some Mainers from getting a shot and he is committed to helping remove those obstacles.

“In rural counties it may be ideological,” Shah said. “In other places, it may be social determinants: getting time off of work, having transportation, making hours for vaccination sites work for them. Time will tell. It will be an empirical question as much as anything else.”


Comments are no longer available on this story