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Originally published in Castine Patriot, March 4, 2021 and Island Ad-Vantages, March 4, 2021 and The Weekly Packet, March 4, 2021
Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrives
The 60+ group can now get vaccinated

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

by Leslie Landrigan

As the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout extends to Mainers 60 and older, groups of people who’ve been fully vaccinated can now plan to gather without masks, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a virtual news conference on March 2.

Those groups are likely to be small, however. There still isn’t enough of the Pfizer, Moderna and, now, Johnson & Johnson vaccine to end the pandemic quickly.

Still, Rene Colson Hudson, whose Healthy Island Project has been delivering lunches to the homebound elderly for a year, is looking forward to bringing handfuls of fully vaccinated seniors together for coffee sometime, perhaps, in mid-May.

It may not seem like much, but it’s almost normal—and that, said Hudson, is what counts.

“The mundane, as long as it’s together [with other people], is exciting,” Hudson said.

More progress
Gov. Janet Mills announced on February 26 that the minimum age eligibility for a COVID-19 vaccine would drop to 60 on March 3. On February 27 the Food and Drug Administration approved the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which doesn’t need to be kept cold the way the other two do.

On March 1, the federal government began shipping 11,500 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine to 35 Hannaford pharmacies in Maine, including the one in Ellsworth.

The other pharmacies that can give vaccines, Walgreen’s and Walmart, received 3,500 doses of the two-dose vaccine this week. The state itself received 50,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to distribute to clinics and health care providers.

Mainers can also get vaccinated at the Northern Light clinic at the Cross Center in Bangor and at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital. Lowering age eligibility to 60 caused a rush to schedule vaccinations at the Blue Hill hospital on March 1, said Anne Schroth, program coordinator for Healthy Peninsula, in a phone interview. “It was definitely harder,” said Schroth, who helps seniors make vaccine appointments. But, she said, 60-plus people are more willing to go to the Cross Center, where there are openings, and many of the 70-plus group have gotten at least their first shot. Schroth said she hoped homebound elderly could get vaccinated at home with the more portable Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The state now has a schedule for lowering the age of vaccine eligibility: April for people 50-plus, May for 40-plus, June for 30-plus and July for 29 and younger, including children if a vaccine has been approved for them.

Shah, however, cautioned that timetable could change because of uncertainty about the vaccine supply.

Public policy slow to change
Nevertheless, 355,810 shots have gone into Maine arms. Nearly one in 10 Mainers—9.25 percent—have had both shots. To be considered fully vaccinated, they must wait 10 to 14 days after their last dose.

The data show that it’s unlikely that someone who has been fully vaccinated could carry enough of the coronavirus to transmit it to someone else, Shah said.

That means that fully vaccinated people should feel free to gather with each other and not wear masks, Shah said.

But not in a restaurant, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. She cautioned that it will be a long time before the state’s rules allow public behavior, such as maskless gathering, that’s permissible in private.

“We’re not going to be able to be in public spaces and know which person has been fully vaccinated and who hasn’t been,” said Lambrew during the March 2 news conference.

So Maine, for example, still requires all people—even fully vaccinated people—who traveled out of state to isolate for 10 days unless they’ve had a negative test within 72 hours prior to arrival. (New Hampshire and Vermont are the exception.)

What will the summer look like?
Lambrew said it’s too early to say what pandemic restrictions will still be in place during the summer tourist season. More people will be vaccinated, but exactly how many is hard to tell because of the unpredictability of the vaccine supply.

One possibility is that people could be asked to prove they’ve been vaccinated to be able to do certain activities, Lambrew said. For example, everyone who gets vaccinated receives a card and an electronic record. Lambrew suggested that they hang on to it.

Lambrew also said the state is doing a comprehensive review of its public health guidance.

But Shah uttered a note of warning: the “remarkable” decline over the past six weeks has slowed a little bit.

The state isn’t seeing multiple hundreds of new COVID cases as it had in January, Shah said. But, he said, “we’re not seeing a continuation of that reduction.”

He said it isn’t clear what’s happening—a natural fluctuation in a complicated system or something else. Shah said the state’s epidemiological team is looking closely at what’s going on.

And teachers?
Lambrew said the state is planning to hold clinics for age-eligible school teachers and staff as an extra option. She said details will be announced at the end of the week. “Trying to get more children into classrooms is a priority,” Lambrew said.