The slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout is exposing too many people to what could be a deadly disease for one simple reason: There is not enough vaccine to go around.

Until production meets demand, most people are going to have to be patient while the available supply gets distributed, starting with the highest-risk members of the community. That’s why the first wave of vaccines went to front-line health care workers and nursing home residents.

Sometimes, though, risk is a matter of opinion. MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center and nine hospital systems around the state, confirmed that it did not just vaccinate employees who come into contact with patients. Maine’s largest health care organization also vaccinated employees in non-medical roles, including those who work from home, and even a team of contractors from out-of state which was brought to Maine to discourage Maine Medical Center nurses from forming a union.

MaineHealth said Monday that the state changed its guidance over time. CEO Bill Caron explained that the organization was just “protecting the infrastructure” by vaccinating lower-risk employers, since COVID outbreaks among people in administrative roles could cripple the organization.

But it looks like he was really protecting MaineHealth, putting the needs of one organization at the head of the line. High-risk workers who serve in public-facing roles for other employers had to wait, while low-risk employees at MaineHealth got their shots.

Even if only a small number of people were protected out of turn, the organization’s decisions could have a serious impact on public confidence in the whole vaccination program.

If we want people to wait patiently for their turn, we need them to believe that the vaccine distribution system is both competent and fair. Once the public loses faith in the process, more people will try to jump the line, convinced that COVID vaccines are being doled out through favors to those lucky enough to know somebody who knows somebody.

It’s important to remember that MaineHealth does not own the vaccine that it distributed to its employees. MaineHealth did not develop the vaccine. It did not manufacture it. It didn’t even buy it.

The health care organization was allotted doses of vaccine to deliver it to the public under the protocols developed by the state and federal governments.

MaineHealth behaved in a way that you might expect for a corporation that answers to its board of directors. But by partnering with the state, MaineHealth became a member of a team that has a much broader scope of accountability. Taxpayer money was used to help create the vaccine and to buy the doses that are being distributed by MaineHealth and others.

The rollout of the COVID vaccines has been confusing. Health care workers in private practices and residents of independent-living retirement communities had trouble getting access to vaccines even though they meet the eligibility criteria for first-phase immunization. The longer people have to wait to be vaccinated, the more likely they are to question the system.

The state and its partners should not let this fester. Before too many people lose confidence in the system, we need to hear that the rules are clear and that they are being followed by everyone.


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