CVS Pharmacy vaccinators prepare on Saturday to administer first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to residents and staff at Atria, a senior living community in Kennebunk. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday she’s moving older Maine residents and those with serious health problems who are more likely to suffer or die from COVID-19 up the priority list for vaccinations.

Her announcement came on the same day the state set a new high for daily cases with 824.

“The goal of all of us throughout this pandemic is to save lives,” Mills said at a news briefing, noting that 85 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Maine so far have been individuals 70 and older.

The governor’s changes to Maine’s strategy for distributing vaccines includes moving public safety officials and COVID response personnel into Phase 1A, which already is underway and includes health care workers, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Mills said adding public safety employees to the first phase helps “ensure the continuity of basic public safety services for Maine people.” As for COVID-19 response personnel, that includes those who work at testing production facilities like Abbott or Idexx, or in test processing labs, including at the CDC.

Dr. John Alexander, the chief medical officer at Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston, said the hospital is working on the logistics of implementing the changes and hopes to expand its vaccination efforts soon.

“We’re excited to start vaccinating our first responders, public safety and critical response personnel, and happy that Maine’s most vulnerable residents are being prioritized under the state’s updated strategy,” Alexander said in statement emailed Wednesday night.

Residents 70 and older are now part of Phase 1B, which also could include front-line workers like teachers and grocery store workers, though no decisions have been finalized. Phase 1B, which is expected to begin in February and be completed by April, also will include people with high-risk medical conditions, including asthma and diabetes, although Mills acknowledged that identifying those individuals will be challenging.

Once a “significant number” of people 70 and older have been vaccinated, or if the supply increases, Maine will then move to vaccinate people 65 to 69, which is in line with federal recommendations announced Tuesday, Mills said in a news release.

 

Asked how the state plans to prioritize the subgroups now included in Phase 1B, Mills said there would be some overlap, but she stressed that those who are at the highest risk of dying would be at the front of the line.

Approximately 193,000 people in Maine are 70 or older, although some of them already qualify to be vaccinated in Phase 1A because they are in long-term care settings or are health care workers.

Mills said the changes she announced Wednesday will help target the most vulnerable individuals, but she also said that Maine and other states are hampered by a vaccine supply that she called, “limited, unpredictable and insufficient.” She urged Mainers to continue to be patient.

“I’d like to give everyone a date on the calendar … but we can’t do that,” she said.

Phase 1C includes other critical workers not identified in Phase 1B, while Phase 2 will include people 16 to 64 who were not eligible during a previous phase. These phases are planned for the spring and summer.

Wednesday marked the first time Maine has reported more than 800 new cases in one day. There have now been six days of at least 700 cases, all of them since Dec. 22.

The seven-day case average increased to 582, up from 364 cases this time last month and 173 cases two months ago. Since the pandemic reached Maine in March, there have been 31,150 confirmed or probable cases. New cases were reported in every county, led by 198 in York County, 168 in Cumberland County and 100 in Kennebec County.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that Maine’s positivity rate for PCR tests has dropped to 5.35 percent from 5.9 percent last week, in part because average daily testing volume increased by more than 200 tests per 100,000 people.

The number of deaths rose to 453, an increase of almost 200 just in the last month. Of those, 386 (85 percent) have been people 70 or older, even though only 13 percent of all positive cases have been in that age group. Of the four deaths reported Wednesday, two were in York County and two were in Penobscot County.

Hospitalizations increased to 207 on Wednesday, the highest total to date, and included 64 patients in critical care and 23 on ventilators. Since March, 1,201 people have been hospitalized at some point.

“Even though a vaccine is here … we cannot let our guard down,” Shah said. “I know that’s hard to do because we’ve had our guard up for so long.”

The sustained level of cases comes as the state moves into its second month of vaccinating the first phase of individuals – health care workers, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

As of Wednesday, 62,004 vaccines had been administered in Maine, according to the CDC, although that number is likely higher because the pharmacies that have been hosting clinics for nursing homes are not required to submit data immediately. Of those, 8,493 were second doses. Subtracting out the doses allocated to the retail pharmacy program, which is vaccinating long-term care residents and staff, Maine has administered 82 percent of its vaccine supply so far, which is among the highest percentages of any state.

In addition to protecting older Mainers and police and fire personnel, the updated vaccination plan also includes corrections officers. Mills said this protects them and helps keep the virus away from residents of jails and prisons, who are not included in the first phases.

As more vaccines come into Maine in the coming weeks, Shah said it will intensify the need to create what he called “community level vaccination sites.” Those discussions are ongoing, but Mills said that if Maine sees more doses in the coming weeks it will find a way to get them into people’s arms.

Even though Maine is moving residents 70 or older into the beginning of the next phase, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew cautioned individuals in that category to hold off on calling their doctor to get scheduled. She said more information would be available next week after the state works out details about how to effectively vaccinate those individuals in bulk.

The United States has reached the pandemic’s deadliest point so far. A record 4,327 deaths were reported on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University, pushing the U.S. over 380,000 deaths to date, by far the most of any country.

The number of COVID-19 cases nationwide is about 22.5 million, or nearly 7 percent of the U.S. population.

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