Musbah Aden gets a COVID nasal swab test in July from registered nurse Amy Hesby at the B Street Health Center’s walk-up window in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

As Maine continues to immunize health care workers for COVID-19 it also is planning its next steps for when the scale of vaccination greatly expands, including possibly launching an online tool so people can schedule their shots.

State officials also continue to mull the details of which population groups should be next in line for the vaccine.

Maine reported 597 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, a sharp increase from the previous three days, which saw numbers in the 300s. Nine additional Maine people died of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in states such as New Jersey, people can preregister for a COVID-19 vaccination.  Other states and cities are considering similar plans for online registries.

Maine also is planning a preregistration program for when vaccines will be more widely available, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing on Monday.

Shah said the online tool, to be released later, will aim to prevent long lines at vaccination sites, which could expose people to COVID-19 while they wait to get immunized.  Shah said the idea is to complete much of the required paperwork before people show up to be vaccinated.

“What we really want to do is to try to get as much of the pre-work done beforehand,” Shah said. “We want folks to get in and get out in the service of keeping exposure risk as low as possible.”

The Mills administration is still determining the details of Phase 1B, the next step in the vaccination program. The Maine CDC hopes to announce decisions about Phase 1B soon, agency spokesman Robert Long said on Tuesday while declining to provide a timetable.

Maine will likely move from Phase 1A, which includes health care workers, paramedics, and staff and residents of nursing homes, to Phase 1B, which could include people 75 and older and front-line essential workers, in February. Phase 1A includes 130,000 Mainers, while Phase 1B comprises an additional 200,000 people. Combined, that represents about 25 percent of Maine’s population. So far, more than 35,000 Maine people have received at least the first dose of the vaccine.

Groups are jockeying to get as high as possible on the Maine CDC’s priority list for vaccination, as the Mills administration is still hashing out some of the details of who gets the vaccine and when.

Shah said on Monday that there may be shifts within 1B to prioritize the oldest Mainers who are most vulnerable to dying of COVID-19, and for essential workers to be grouped based on risk. Front-line essential workers will likely include teachers, police officers, postal workers, workers at food processing plants and grocery store clerks. So some front-line essential workers may be among the first to receive the vaccines in February, while others will wait longer.

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, which represents the tourism industry, said restaurant and hotel employees, who are currently listed in Phase 1C by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, should be moved up to 1B. He said these employees should get their shots at the same time as grocery store workers because they have similar risk levels.

The U.S. CDC puts restaurant and hotel workers in Phase 1C based on exposure risk and how critical the industries are to a functioning society. But states have not always followed U.S. CDC guidelines on whom to vaccinate first.

For instance, Florida and Texas are starting to vaccinate seniors now, while Massachusetts is immunizing police officers and corrections officers before grocery store employees. The U.S. CDC recommends grocery clerks be vaccinated in the same phase as police officers and corrections officers.

Hewins said the hospitality industry is in its “darkest days” and “vaccinations of employees would be the trigger to getting the industry back on its feet.” He said hotels are also considered essential for providing places for people to quarantine and sheltering homeless people during the pandemic.

Tim Rich, owner of The Independent Cafe in Bar Harbor, said the restaurant industry is the “backbone of the tourist economy.”

“It is difficult to find employees right now because people are afraid,” Rich said. His cafe is currently closed for the season, but he hopes to open it in late March or early April. “If many people can get vaccinated, that will make everyone feel comfortable coming into our restaurant, whether it’s employees coming to work or our customers.”

Long, the Maine CDC spokesman, said “no final determination” has been made about which job categories will be defined as “front-line essential workers” to be vaccinated under Phase 1B.

“We value input from HospitalityMaine and similar groups as we continue to vaccinate under Phase 1A with velocity and equity under the state’s vaccination plan, and as we finalize plans for 1B,” Long said in an email response to questions.

Long said, in general, how quickly Maine can vaccinate its populace depends on how fast the federal government can ship vaccine doses to the states. So far, Maine has been receiving about 15,000 to 20,000 doses per week, while Shah has said the state needs about 50,000 doses per week to reduce “supply constraints” on administering vaccine.

Shah also has said that older Mainers may get an accelerated priority, but those discussions among state officials are ongoing.

Jane Margesson, AARP Maine communications director, said “all older Mainers should be prioritized,” but the organization is awaiting the Mills administration’s decision on Phase 1B.

“While there is a lot of discussion about older people versus essential workers, AARP is focused on ensuring all older Americans are prioritized for vaccination. Here in Maine, for example, many older people are essential workers,” Margesson said. “Vaccinating the people most likely to wind up in the hospital alleviates burdens on communities’ healthcare systems; a major issue here in Maine, especially in our most rural counties.”

Since the pandemic began, 26,565 people in Maine have tested positive for COVID-19, with 369 deaths.

Shah said during a media briefing on Monday that in the first few days of the New Year, Maine may still have been experiencing a lag in reported cases, not only from labs catching up in reporting results to the state health agency from the holiday, but also people may have put off getting tested around the New Year’s Day holiday.

There were 376 new COVID-19 reported cases on Monday, 350 on Sunday and 342 on Saturday, but in the last week of 2020, Maine experienced case counts in the upper 500s and 700s per day. The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 522.3 on Tuesday, compared to 452.3 a week ago and 262.7 a month ago.

As of Tuesday, 35,536 Mainers had received at least the first dose of the vaccine.

There are 191 people currently hospitalized in Maine, with 50 in critical care.

Shah said a more contagious variant of COVID-19 has not yet been detected in Maine, but it’s likely just a “matter of time” before it arrives. A few states have detected the new strain, including Colorado, California and New York. Shah said the vaccine will still be highly effective against the new variant, but knowing it’s more contagious makes wearing masks and social distancing even more important.

The deaths the Maine CDC listed Tuesday, which included a person whose county hadn’t been available on Monday, were a man in his 80s from Aroostook County; a woman in her 80s from Aroostook County; two men in their 70s from Cumberland County; a man in his 70s from Penobscot County; a woman in her 70s from Somerset County; a man in his 80s from York County; a woman in her 70s from York County; and two women in their 90s from York County.

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