Maine reported 16 more deaths and 823 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, a day after the state’s largest health-care network announced preparations for a major expansion of vaccination of older residents.

But whether vaccine production will accelerate to meet the greater demand from Maine’s expansion of its vaccination program is uncertain, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a media briefing on Friday.

Shah said the state received bad news on the supply front Friday when it learned that a policy change by the Trump administration to deliver second doses to states immediately and no longer hold them in reserve did not mean a substantial increase in vaccine supply for next week. That’s because Operation Warp Speed had already exhausted its supply of reserve doses.

“This means the anticipated increase in doses that may have started coming into states from clearing out the shelves may not happen,” Shah said. “Maine may be continuing with our current supply constraints for the foreseeable future.”

The restricted vaccine supply comes even as Gov. Janet Mills announced on Thursday that Maine people 70 and older and those with high-risk health conditions would be given higher priority and be moved closer to the front of the line to be vaccinated. Currently, Maine is immunizing health care workers, staff and residents of assisted-living centers, and paramedics.

The vaccine supply problem may be temporary if vaccine production and delivery to states ramps up in the next few weeks, but Shah said he doesn’t know if that will be the case.

Shah said if the supply improves, it will be “all gas, no brakes” to get Mainers vaccinated against COVID-19.

Maine is expected to receive 18,550 doses of vaccine next week from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, an increase of 1,375 over last week but far short of the 50,000 per week that Shah has said would be needed for supply issues to not hamper the vaccination program.

Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said the state was encouraged by the cooperation of the incoming Biden administration, which takes over on Wednedsay.

President-elect Joe Biden said Friday that vaccine distribution would be hastened as soon as possible, promising that 100 million doses would be in people’s arms in the first 100 days of the administration. Among other plans, Biden said he would get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up mass vaccination sites in thousands of communities across the country, with about 100 launched by the end of February.

“I’m convinced we can get it done,” Biden said during a speech in Wilmington, Delaware. “We will manage the hell out of this operation.”

Friday is the third day in a row in Maine that new cases topped 800. The increased deaths and higher case counts come at a time when Maine is racing to inoculate people. Through Friday, Maine had administered 70,228 vaccine doses, with 59,611 first doses and 10,617 second doses.

The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 624 on Friday, compared to 501.7 a week ago and 408.1 a month ago.

Registered nurse Holly Burnham vaccinates Mukonkole Lumami at the Northern Light Homecare and Hospice COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Wednesday, January 13. On Wednesday the clinic was vaccinating mostly school nurses and other independent medical providers. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 32,781 cases of COVID-19, and 477 deaths.

On Thursday, major health networks in Maine said they would be starting vaccinations for those 70 and older shortly, perhaps as soon as next week, with details to be released soon.

MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center as well as a network that includes many primary care offices, sent out an email to more than 300,000 patients on Thursday to let them know that it plans to begin scheduling vaccine appointments for those 70 and older as soon as next week. All vaccinations will take place in standalone clinics.

John Porter, a MaineHealth spokesman, said the network expects to begin vaccinating people over 70 by the end of this month. A call center soon will be set up for people to make appointments, and those 70 and older can schedule them on a first-come, first-served basis.

Northern Light Health, InterMed and Central Maine Healthcare also said on Thursday that they were finalizing plans for expanded immunization clinics.

Maine will receive an additional $89 million in federal funds to combat the pandemic, including $12 million for the COVID-19 vaccination program, and $77 million for testing, contact tracing and other strategies, the state’s congressional delegation said in a joint announcement Thursday.

“The funding has yet to arrive, but it will provide critical resources as Maine expands its vaccination efforts while maintaining robust testing, case investigation and contact tracing programs,” said Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC.

Also on Friday, Shah said that the Maine CDC had shifted 975 vaccine doses from Walgreens to an independent pharmacy in Bangor that was ready to run a vaccine clinic at an assisted-living center. The pharmacy was not identified Friday.

 

“We’re not messing around with this,” Shah said. “We’ve got doses waiting to be administered, and people waiting to receive them.”

Earlier this week, Shah told Walgreens to send 1,950 vaccine doses to Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, both in Lewiston.

Shah said despite some improvements by the drugstore chains, the Maine CDC continues to be concerned about the pace of vaccinations by Walgreens and CVS, which have contracts with the U.S. CDC to vaccinate staff and residents at assisted-living centers. He said his agency is taking some nursing homes that are further down the list and reassigning them to independent pharmacies.

West Virginia, which has the best per capita rate in the country for administering vaccine doses, has opted out of the U.S. CDC arrangement with CVS and Walgreens and credits using independent pharmacies for its success.

According to the Bloomberg News vaccine tracker, West Virginia has used 78 percent of the supply of vaccines coming into the state from Operation Warp Speed, compared to 49 percent in Maine. The national average is 36 percent.

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