Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday opened up eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to any adult who wants one, as the state grapples with alarming rates of new virus transmission and hospitalizations.

Health officials reported 1,042 new cases of coronavirus, the highest single-day total on record. The number of people hospitalized – 280 – also set a pandemic high for the fourth consecutive day and is an increase of more than 30 percent in two weeks. Of those currently in the hospital, 77 are in intensive care and 36 are on ventilators.

Overwhelmingly, those hospitalized are either unvaccinated, or vaccinated but older and with other serious health conditions. State health officials said recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates that unvaccinated people are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized.

“Vaccines are saving the lives of Maine people and keeping them from getting seriously ill from COVID-19,” Mills said in a statement. “With Maine and other New England states confronting a sustained surge, and with cold weather sending people indoors, we want to simplify the federal government’s complicated eligibility guidelines and make getting a booster shot as straightforward and easy as possible.”

Wednesday’s announcement is meant to provide another layer of protection for those who want it as the virus circulates widely, especially in less vaccinated parts of the state, and as the holiday season approaches. But it’s also a tacit acknowledgement that although Maine’s overall vaccination rate has been strong, there is some evidence of waning immunity among those who received shots at the beginning of the year.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah explained that because Maine did so well vaccinating older residents early on, the drop in effectiveness may be more pronounced here.

“That’s where boosters come in,” he said. “No doubt a lot of people would like to move on … unfortunately, the virus is not quite done with us.”

Previously, boosters were recommended only for those 65 and older or those with immunodeficiencies, or for adults who originally received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A federal advisory panel is set to review data Friday on the benefits of expanding booster eligibility, but Maine’s governor said the state is not waiting. Four other states – Colorado, California, New Mexico, and Arkansas – have opened eligibility as well.

BOOSTERS ALREADY AVAILABLE

The Maine CDC has notified health care providers about the expanded eligibility but said some might need time to change their policies to accommodate all patients. On the other hand, some retail pharmacies and other providers already have been giving boosters to those who asked for them.

Matt Marston, vice president for Northern Light Health, said the health care provider has ample doses and is ready to begin offering boosters to more adults immediately.

“With cases on the rise throughout Maine, we look forward to being able to provide more Mainers with this additional layer of protection and reassurance,” he said in a statement.

Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the state is not abandoning its efforts to reach unvaccinated people.

“Nothing about today’s announcement stops or changes our work to get people to get their first doses,” she said. “It’s not either/or, it’s all of the above.”

Lambrew also said that Maine has the primary tool to control COVID-19 – readily available and effective vaccines – and added that reimposing restrictions similar to those earlier in the pandemic are unlikely. She said the focus has shifted away from public policy measures and more toward “personal responsibility.”

Shah added that although all the numbers suggest Maine is headed in the wrong direction, “the risk is, on some level, an elective risk.”

He said the state’s primary aim is to reduce the strain on the hospital system.

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED

To help hospitals treating record numbers of COVID-19 patients, Mills also announced Wednesday that her administration is expanding its support by mobilizing the Maine Responds Emergency Health Volunteer System, which organizes health care, public health and emergency response volunteers to respond to emergency situations.

“Maine people have stepped up time and again to help their fellow citizens get through this pandemic,” Mills said. “If you have experience in health care settings and can give our health care workers a much-needed break, please volunteer through Maine Responds. Your contribution will benefit everybody. You can save lives.”

Lambrew called on volunteers to step forward.  “We need to work harder to give our front-line health care workers are break.” Volunteers can sign up at https://www.maineresponds.org/.

Mills also said larger hospitals that have taken on most of the burden of caring for COVID-19 patients are being allowed greater flexibility to rely on the resources of smaller, rural hospitals.

Shah said the state also is working to expand the availability of monoclonal antibody treatment, especially in rural areas. The treatment can prevent hospitalizations and deaths if given to an infected person before they become seriously ill.

“We still prefer prevention over treatment, but treatment is important, too,” he said.

With Wednesday’s new cases, the seven-day average now stands at 505, up from 473 cases two weeks ago and from 397 cases this time last month, according to data from the CDC. Maine’s average positivity rate – the percentage of all tests that come back positive – reached 8.5 percent on Tuesday, a high-water mark. Testing volume also has increased by 17 percent just in the last two weeks.

Increasingly, counties with lower vaccination rates are seeing the highest levels of transmission, while counties with high vaccination rates are not being hit as hard.

Franklin County, for instance, has the lowest rate of vaccination (60 percent) and has seen the highest rate of cases over the last seven days, 609 per 100,000 people. In Cumberland County, where 80 percent of residents are vaccinated, the case rate over the last seven days is 179 per 100,000 people.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 113,132 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,243 deaths. Despite the recent surge, both numbers still rank third-lowest per capita of any state.

Cases have started to increase again across the country, stoking fears of another deadly wave as the holiday season approaches. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day case average is 83,671, an 11 percent increase from 75,186 cases on average two weeks earlier. Deaths are still averaging more than 1,000 per day across the country and more than 760,000 people have lost their lives to the virus since the pandemic began.

25 PERCENT JUMP IN VACCINATIONS

Vaccinations already have been accelerating in Maine in recent weeks, in part because of booster shots and doses for children 5-11. The state is averaging more than 8,800 doses per day, which is an increase of 25 percent from the previous week.

Overall, Maine has administered 952,157 final doses of vaccines, or 70.8 percent of all residents. Additionally, 178,506 booster shots have been given and 14,097 elementary school-age children, or 14.6 percent of all children in that category, have gotten first shots of the child dose of the Pfizer vaccine. In Cumberland and Lincoln counties, roughly 25 percent of children 5-11 have gotten their first shot. In Piscataquis County, less than 3 percent have done so.

Even though Maine’s overall vaccination rate is high, it remains uneven. That means there are large pockets of unvaccinated people in some parts of the state, and that’s where the virus has been spreading most. The gap between Cumberland County, which has the highest rate, and Somerset County, which has the lowest, is nearly 20 percentage points.

Shah said during the news briefing Wednesday that Mainers can still gather safely for Thanksgiving if they take precautions.

The safest way to gather is to ensure that everyone is fully vaccinated, he said. For many families, though, that won’t be the case and, in those situations, “the calculus in much harder and will vary from family to family.”

He said those who are unvaccinated should consider getting a rapid test to use before gathering, and he said spending time outdoors, opening windows and wearing masks can still help reduce spread if not everyone has been vaccinated.

Shah also acknowledged that cases, hospitalizations and deaths could continue to rise heading into next week and following the holiday.


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