State health officials said Maine could receive the first 12,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as mid-December, offering a glimmer of hope amid a surge of infections that included three more deaths and 249 new cases on Monday.

Although the arrival of a vaccine would be good news, the rollout of doses for widespread access is expected to take months and will be a huge logistical challenge for all states, including Maine.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news briefing that “preliminary numbers that could easily change” show the federal government could ship 12,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Maine. The vaccine will require storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit), but Maine has recently expanded its ultra-cold storage capacity, Shah said.

Because the Pfizer vaccine requires two doses taken three weeks apart, an initial shipment of 12,000 doses would vaccinate 6,000 people. At the very front of the line will be health care workers most at risk of contracting COVID-19, Shah said.

Maine has 22,280 health care providers in long-term care facilities, 35,670 inpatient health care providers, and 28,470 outpatient and home health care providers, according to the state’s draft vaccination plan for COVID-19.

Shah said it’s unclear whether Maine would get regular weekly shipments of doses in subsequent weeks or large amounts all at once, but some of the doses will go to the state while other shipments will go directly to hospitals. Shah said the drug companies are currently manufacturing the doses in anticipation of regulatory approval in mid-December, so that distribution can begin immediately.

“Those first doses will be focused on health care providers,” Shah said. “Our focus is on making sure we can provide that Pfizer vaccine to health care facilities that have ultra-cold storage units in place so that they can start organizing to deliver the vaccine. Once we receive word, they will have to shift those plans into action.”

The new cases and deaths reported Monday continued a trend of higher case counts.

The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 174.1, compared to 205.4 a week ago and 65.7 a month ago.

Overall, there have been 11,757 COVID-19 cases in Maine and 194 deaths.

St. Joseph’s College Director of health and wellness Sheri Piers administers a COVID-19 test to a student while Jenna Chase, right, waits to pass off the vial to put the swab in on Thursday, November 19. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

As cases increase nationally, officials with Moderna, which is developing a second COVID-19 vaccine candidate, said on Monday that they were applying to the Food and Drug Administration for approval for emergency use of the vaccine.

“It was the first time I allowed myself to cry,” Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, told CNN on Monday. “We have a full expectation to change the course of this pandemic.”

Pfizer applied in November and will go before a panel of FDA scientists on Dec. 10, while Moderna is expected to go before the same panel on Dec. 17.

If both are approved, distribution of the Pfizer vaccine could begin around Dec. 15, with Moderna starting on Dec. 21, officials for the companies have said.

Shah said he doesn’t yet know how many doses would be included in the initial shipment of the Moderna vaccine.

Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have effectiveness rates of about 95 percent, according to late-stage clinical trials.

Full rollouts of the vaccines are expected to extend into the spring or summer of 2021, with public health officials racing the clock against a worsening pandemic that’s filling up hospitals across the country. Maine is doing relatively well compared to most other states, but only because the pandemic is surging less in Maine than in most states. Maine’s seven-day average of daily cases was 12.3 per 100,000 residents, the third-lowest in the nation, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Hawaii had the lowest virus prevalence in the nation at 6.9.

Forty-five states had virus prevalence rates at least double Maine’s, and Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota had rates approaching 10 times Maine’s or higher.

As conditions worsen, more people seek care in hospitals.

Several Maine hospitals last week reported record numbers of inpatients with COVID-19, many of them in central and eastern Maine. On Monday, 139 people were in Maine hospitals for COVID-19, with 51 in intensive care and 18 on ventilators.

Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor treated an average of 22.2 COVID-19 inpatients each day for the six days ending Wednesday – the highest COVID-19 patient load in the state. MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston also broke their respective records for COVID-19 patients.

York County also has seen a surge in hospitalizations, with Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford and York Hospital reporting record highs.

The deaths on Monday were three women in their 80s, two from Penobscot County and one from Somerset County. An outbreak at the Island Nursing Home in Deer Isle has expanded to 44 people, including 25 cases among residents, 10 among nurses and nine among other employees. Other outbreaks include seven cases at Auburn Public Works, eight cases at Dexter EMS and three cases at Westbrook High School.

The University of Maine System reported seven new cases on Monday, bringing the cumulative total to 121 since the academic year began.

Also, Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said the state is reviewing whether to continue a 9 p.m. curfew for the state’s hospitality industry, including restaurants, casinos, movie theaters and tasting rooms. The curfew began Nov. 20 and is set to expire Sunday.

“We’ve heard from different municipalities about closing times for restaurants and similar establishments and it seems to have gone well. We will assess whether we think that made a difference (in curtailing transmission),” Lambrew said.

To help businesses hit hard by pandemic, the Mills administration announced on Monday that $40 million in federal CARES Act money will be distributed to the hospitality industry on a grant basis starting in December.

Lambrew also said that the state is discussing whether Maine’s winter high school sports, such as basketball, ice hockey, swimming and indoor track, can begin practices Dec. 14 or whether the season should be delayed. Lambrew noted that other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have pushed off winter sports until January as virus cases worsen.

Lambrew previously said that state decisions about high school sports also will apply to community sports, such as AAU basketball, and youth and club ice hockey.

Staff in the office of independent Sen. Angus King of Maine said an announcement is expected Tuesday about a bill that would assist home health care workers during the pandemic.

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