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Originally published in Castine Patriot, December 17, 2020 and Island Ad-Vantages, December 17, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, December 17, 2020
A light at the end of the pandemic tunnel
Vaccine shipments arrive, INH death toll rises to 12

COVID-19 Local Updates Fall/Winter 2020
Click here to see the full COVID-19 Local Updates Fall/Winter 2020.

by Leslie Landrigan

The first shipment of 1,950 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Maine on Monday, December 14, as the post-Thanksgiving surge in cases continued to take lives in Maine, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during a virtual news conference that day.

Twelve residents have died at the Island Nursing Home as of December 15, according to Executive Director Matthew Trombley. A total of 62 residents tested positive for COVID-19, and 38 have recovered. There were 36 cases among the staff with 28 recovered.

More than 2,000 people in Maine contracted the virus over the previous week, Shah said. Statewide, 265 have died.

Shah called the arrival of the vaccine “a light at the end of the tunnel.” But, he said, “It’s important to remember you’re still in a tunnel.”

That first vaccine shipment amounted to less than 0.1 percent of the 2.6 million doses needed to vaccinate everyone in Maine. It may not be until spring or early summer that the general population can get vaccinated, Shah said.

To get the limited supplies of the vaccine to people in order of priority is now a logistical challenge, one that involves hospitals, nursing homes, public safety agencies, pharmacy chains, congregate care facilities, fire departments, ambulance services and swab-and-send sites.

Top tier

Health care workers exposed to COVID-19 patients—including nurses, dietitians and housekeeping staff—are first in line to get vaccinated, according to Dr. James Jarvis, medical specialist at Northern Light. Locally, that means the staff at Northern Light’s Blue Hill and Ellsworth facilities. Each hospital is caring for two COVID-19 patients, Jarvis said in a virtual news conference on December 14.

On Tuesday, health care workers at Maine Medical Center in Portland were scheduled to be the first in Maine to receive the vaccine made by Pfizer, Inc., according to news reports The Food and Drug Administration had approved the vaccine on Friday, December 11, and it was flown to Maine from Michigan on Monday.

The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored and transported in ultra-cold conditions (minus 94 Fahrenheit), something Maine’s smaller, rural hospitals don’t have the equipment to handle. So large hospitals, which do have the equipment, were the first to receive it this week.

Jarvis said he expects a steady supply of vaccine every week from the federal government.

The 1a group

Also in the first group to get vaccinated are health care workers such as licensed EMTs and the residents and staff of congregate care facilities. Maine CDC classifies them as “1a.” Then come essential workers, or the 1bs, such as first responders and corrections officers. Exactly who belongs to that group is under review by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, according to an update to its website on December 15.

Chris Elkington, superintendent of schools in Sedgwick, Brooklin and Deer Isle-Stonington, said school staff belong to that group. “We are awaiting direction from Maine’s Department of Education for possible time frames,” he said in an email.

School Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt said he’d had no word about a vaccine schedule. “We’ll just stay tuned,” he said in a phone interview.

After the 1b’s get vaccinated, it’s the 1c’s turn: adults with high-risk medical conditions and adults 65 and older.

Those groups are likely to receive another vaccine, by Massachusetts-based Moderna, Inc., according to Andy Sankey, director of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, in a phone interview. The Moderna vaccine doesn’t require ultra-cold storage, and it could receive FDA approval as early as December 17, Sankey said. Both vaccines require two doses.

A separate system has been set up to vaccinate the staff and residents of congregate care facilities. The state has contracted with local pharmacies, such as Walgreens and Community Pharmacy in Blue Hill, to set up on-site clinics in congregate care facilities to administer the vaccine, according to Maine CDC.

The Island Nursing Home is working with two pharmaceutical systems, Omnicare and Walgreens, to get the vaccine, Trombley said in an email. “We, at this time, are just awaiting the disbursement of the vaccine,” he said.

Tim Chandler, executive director of Parker Ridge in Blue Hill, said he’s been in communication with Walgreens and Community Pharmacy. “We’re on their list,” he said in a phone interview.

Chandler said administrators have spoken to every resident and staff member about whether they are willing to get vaccinated.

“Pretty much everyone said ‘Yes’,” he said.

The 1b group

In Hancock County, Sankey asked the chiefs of every public safety agency to submit a list by December 16 of staff to be vaccinated. Those include firefighters, park rangers, game wardens, Marine Patrol officers, sheriffs deputies, corrections officers, dispatchers and all law enforcement.

Sankey said the state has identified two agencies to administer the vaccine to those groups: Peninsula Ambulance Corps in Blue Hill and the Mount Desert Fire Department. He expects the Moderna vaccine to be shipped in waves.

The Memorial Ambulance Corps in Deer Isle has volunteered its paramedics and advanced EMTs to help the Peninsula Ambulance Corps with its vaccination clinic, said Walter Reed, director. “We’re encouraging everyone [in the ambulance corps] to get the vaccine,” Reed said in a phone interview.

Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane said he expects his department to start getting vaccinated by the end of the month.

“I’ll take it in a heartbeat,” Kane said in a phone interview.