Nurse Practitioner Lenka Collakova became the first staff member at Southern Maine Health Care to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, administered just hours after the shipment arrived on Tuesday morning, Collakova treats COVID-19 patients in the special care unit at SMHC’s Biddeford Medical Center. Courtesy Photo/SMHC

BIDDEFORD — Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford administered the first vaccinations for COVID-19 to front-line caregivers on Tuesday, Dec 15.

At 11:30 a.m., nurse practitioner Lenka Collakova became the first staff member at SMHC to receive the vaccine. Collakova treats COVID-19 patients in the special care unit at SMHC’s Biddeford Medical Center.

“This is a very exciting day,” Collakova said after receiving the vaccine. “I work with COVID patients every day and was eager to get the vaccine as soon as possible.”

Collakova is one of 150 MaineHealth caregivers who were scheduled to be vaccinated Tuesday at Southern Maine Health Care and Maine Medical Center in Portland. On Wednesday, vaccinations were to start at a third MaineHealth hospital, Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick. The three southern Maine hospitals have treated the most COVID-19 patients during the pandemic within MaineHealth and were prioritized for the first doses for that reason.

“By having our care team protected against COVID-19, we can better assure that we will be ready to treat, not just those suffering with COVID, but everyone who needs care during this time,” said Dr. Dora Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer.

Several weeks ago, MaineHealth formed a system-wide task force with clinicians from all nine of its local health systems to oversee distribution of the vaccine among its front-line caregivers. The task force has been working to set up vaccine clinics across the system in an effort to vaccinate care team members as quickly as possible.

It will take several weeks to vaccinate all eligible team members across the MaineHealth system, Mills said in a news release. While the logistics of storing and transporting the vaccines require planning, given that the Pfizer product requires ultra-cold storage and the Moderna vaccine also has to be frozen, MaineHealth officials said the biggest hurdle is finding doctors and nurses to staff the vaccine clinics; they have been recruiting for several weeks. Among those recruited are retired doctors and nurses who have volunteered to help.

“It’s a credit to our teams across the system that they were able to come together so quickly and get shots in arms within hours of the arrival of the vaccine,” Mills said. “This effort speaks to how critically important this vaccine is to maintaining our readiness to help our communities through this pandemic.”

Vaccinations will not diminish the need to take precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Mills said. Within MaineHealth, all safety measures will remain in place, including the use of personal protective equipment, extra cleaning of surfaces, segregation of patients known or suspected of having COVID-19 and daily screening for symptoms of all employees.

“Now is not the time to let our guard up,” Mills said. “With vaccines not expected to become widely available to the public until spring or early summer, we still have a very dangerous winter to get through.”