Maine residents age 75 and older likely will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines during the next major phase of the state vaccination plan as it evolves to mirror changing federal guidance during the pandemic.

Over the weekend, a federal advisory panel recommended that individuals age 75 or older as well as some essential workers – including teachers, grocery store workers and police officers – receive priority for vaccines during the next phase of the country’s mass-vaccination effort. Adults between ages 65 and 74, as well as younger individuals with high-risk medical conditions, would follow in a later phase.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will review the panel’s recommendation and determine whether to incorporate it into the guidance the agency gives to the states.

Officials with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said it “will use that guidance for vaccination planning” while recognizing that the timing and specifics could change further based on vaccine availability. Based on recent events, the Maine CDC expects the next phase of the vaccination plan – known as Phase 1B – to begin in late January or early February.

Giving priority to Mainers 75 or older is a departure from the state’s initial draft vaccination plan released in October. In that version of the plan, the state indicated the vaccine would be available to everyone over 65, and that making a distinction among different age groups in that demographic would slow down the process.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said that the agency “has been tracking with the U.S. CDC” guidance and recommendations as they have evolved over the past five or six weeks.

“This change is not a change for us because it is one that we had anticipated,” Shah said during the media briefing Monday.

He acknowledged, however, that the Maine CDC has not kept pace with changes in the plan by updating the information on its website.

“The bottom line is the plan that is on our website does not accurately reflect the latest thinking from the U.S. CDC, but that’s only because, just to be totally candid, we haven’t had a chance to update it yet because we have been focused on getting vaccine out the door to hospital workers and long-term care facilities,” Shah said.

On Monday, hospitals in Maine began receiving the first shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Moderna. Initial batches of a vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech were distributed to Maine and other states starting last week, and additional shipments of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are expected to arrive in Maine throughout the week.

All of those early shipments will be targeted to health care workers on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, as well as residents and staff of some nursing homes.

The first phase of vaccinations comes at a time when Maine and states across the country are experiencing record numbers of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.

The Maine CDC reported 339 new cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus on Monday as well as one additional death. Since mid-March, Maine has documented 19,285 total cases of COVID-19, with nearly 3,000 of them occurring since last Monday.

The additional death reported Monday – identified only as a woman in her 80s from Cumberland County – raised Maine’s total to 293 and comes on top of 33 reported since last Monday, including 11 on Saturday.

The seven-day average in new daily cases stood at 426 on Monday, up slightly from 423 last Monday but more than twice the seven-day average of 187 new daily cases from four weeks ago.

The vast majority of new cases reported daily in recent weeks have resulted not from outbreaks but from “community transmission,” often among family members, co-workers and acquaintances or as a result of small gatherings. The state continues to report and investigate new outbreaks, however.

Shah said Monday that an outbreak at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor first reported on Friday had grown to 48 cases – 40 staff and eight patients. At York Hospital, meanwhile, a total of 44 staff members have tested positive for the virus within the facility’s inpatient and outpatient programs.

The Maine CDC also had opened investigations within the previous 24 hours at Portland High School (three cases), Deering High School (five cases) and Caribou Rehabilitation (five cases), Shah said.

Because of the rapid spread of the virus in the state in recent weeks, the Maine CDC has stopped investigating and contact tracing every case, making the change as part of its effort to prioritize staff resources.

Cumberland County recorded the highest number of new cases at 107, followed by Androscoggin County with 61 cases. New cases were reported in every other Maine county except Knox Conty, including 55 new cases in Kennebec County, 47 in York, 13 in Penobscot, 11 in both Oxford and Somerset, six in Aroostook, five in Franklin, three in Washington, two in both Sagadahoc and Lincoln, and one each in Waldo, Hancock and Piscataquis counties.

While the virus shows little sign of slowing its spread in Maine, there could be some long-awaited financial relief on the way to individuals and businesses struggling amid the pandemic.

A woman fastens her mask while walking on Roosevelt Trail in Naples this month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On Sunday, congressional leaders announced an agreement on a roughly $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package that includes additional forgivable loans to small businesses as well as $600 in stimulus payments to most Americans. The relief package, which was expected to be passed by Congress on Monday night, also includes an additional $300 per week in unemployment benefits for 11 weeks.

On the vaccination front, Shah said that as of Monday afternoon 4,682 people had been administered the first round of shots for the COVID-19 vaccine, although he acknowledged that figure was “undoubtedly an underestimate” because one health care provider was having trouble reporting figures to the Maine CDC.

Maine had received more than 12,000 initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week but expected to receive a smaller batch of 8,775 this week because of distribution issues on the federal level. Maine expected to receive 24,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week based on the state’s allotment through the federal Operation Warp Speed vaccination program.

Individuals being vaccinated with either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines must receive two shots separated by several weeks. Clinical studies showed both vaccines were more than 90 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in people age 18 or older, although the Moderna vaccine does not require the super-cold storage necessary for the Pfizer variety.

States are given flexibility to decide how to dispense the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being distributed nationwide through Operation Warp Speed. The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, said Monday that 5.9 million Moderna vaccines would be distributed to more than 3,500 sites nationwide.

“We believe that these jurisdictions and their leaders are in the best position to understand their specific needs and allocate vaccines in these early days to save the most lives possible,” Azar said during an Operation Warp Speed briefing.

Azar noted that vaccines from three other manufacturers are also undergoing trials and could be added to the distribution network in the coming months.

Even with the growing supply of vaccines, the coronavirus is expected to continue plaguing the country well into next year.

Asked when vaccines could be available for the broader public, beyond the groups targeted during the initial vaccination phases, Shah said he is telling people to prepare to wait until next summer, at least, based on recent events. For instance, last week’s hiccup that led to smaller distributions of the Pfizer vaccines told Shah that “there is reason to be cautious and not overly optimistic, or irrationally optimistic.”

“If I’m being honest with everybody, that is a possibility – that June, July, August, September is when community-level vaccines become widely available,” Shah said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that, but I think we have got to go in with that possibility in our minds.”

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