AUGUSTA — Shortly before 11 a.m. Wednesday, cars started filtering into the parking lot at the Augusta Civic Center as the capital city’s mass vaccination site opened to the public for the first time.

The four-hour clinic was expected to serve 200 people who were in the state’s designated eligible category and had preregistered.

This week the site is expected to deliver 1,344 vaccinations at clinics scheduled through Saturday.

The clinics are being run by MaineGeneral Health, which has been operating smaller-scale clinics at its Augusta campus, vaccinating medical staff and first responders since Feb. 1.

Augusta residents Elaine and Richard Freeman, 74 and 73, were notified a week ago that they were scheduled to receive their vaccines on Wednesday after signing up two weeks ago.

Elaine Freeman said she had spent hours calling and hitting redial to set up appointments before she saw in her patient portal that she could call to register to get an appointment.

“I was not inclined to call all over the state and drive three hours to get the vaccine,” she said. “If figured it would get here eventually. I have been quarantined just about a year, what’s another week?”

Alex Sydnor, MaineGeneral Health chief strategy officer, leads a tour Wednesday of the COVID-19 mass vaccination site at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Once they arrived, the Freemans found the process clear and easy to navigate.

In the 11 months since the pandemic was declared, they have mostly given up traveling to see family and going to church. Arranging for curbside pickup of groceries took a little while to figure out so that it was convenient for them.

After their second shot in a couple of weeks — which was automatically scheduled Wednesday — they plan to go to church.

“I snuck into church a couple of days last summer when we could sit by the windows with a mask on,” Elaine Freeman said.

Before the clinic opened its doors Wednesday, Chuck Hays, MaineGeneral Health president and CEO, said the location was selected by the Maine Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and the city of Augusta transformed the site to accommodate socially distanced vaccinations.

“We couldn’t be more pleased to have this site and expand our capabilities in providing vaccine to our community members,” Hays said. “Many area residents are familiar with this facility.”

In addition to the space available inside the Civic Center, he said, it has ample parking and easy access off Interstate 95.

“We’re ready,” Hays said. “We’re just waiting for the vaccine.”

The space set aside for the vaccination clinic is contained on one level in the Civic Center’s north wing. Signs in the parking lot direct those seeking their shots to the entrance, where they will be temperature screened, provided a mask if they need one and directed to an intake room.

From there, they follow a one-way traffic flow go a waiting room where they will be assigned numbers to be called. Vaccinations will be administered in four stations that are screened for privacy by registered nurses or physicians; some are retired and have picked up shifts and others are currently employed and are working vaccination shifts. The number of stations can be increased to as many as seven, depending on the amount of vaccine available.

Following vaccination, medical staff will observe patients 15 minutes to gauge whether they will have an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Anyone who has disclosed as a part of the appointment process that they have allergies or have had a negative reaction to drugs will be observed for 30 minutes. Staff will also be available to answer questions.

Patients will leave through a designated exit door.

As more vaccine becomes available, MaineGeneral is prepared to operate more four-hour shifts per day up to six days per week with the clinic that could operate from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. if needed.

“Six days a week with seven vaccinators, we could be doing 7,000 vaccinations a week in this facility,” Alex Sydnor, MaineGeneral Health chief strategy officer, said. “We don’t have that many right now.”

The vaccination process is expected to take between 30 minutes and 45 minutes.

Sydnor said the hospital has been working with a logistics consultant hired by the state of Maine to work out the design and flow of people through the clinic with limited wait times and appropriate social distancing. Civic Center staff has also worked with the hospital to organize the space.

A screened off vaccination station seen Wednesday during a tour of the COVID-19 mass vaccination site at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We have a dedicated fiber optic line here,” he said. “We’ve got our own phone system that connects with the health system here, our Environmental Services has been here, our Plant Engineering has been here. It’s been quite an undertaking.”

Sydnor said the vaccine is stored at the health center. The appropriate number of doses will be ferried to a secure room at the Augusta Civic Center, he said, and prepared for the scheduled appointments.

Currently, 10,000 people from across the state are on the registration list. Planning for vaccinations takes place on a week-to-week basis and depends on how much vaccine the state receives each week. Hays said that information is generally available on Wednesday or Thursday.

At full capacity, the clinic is expected to be able to vaccinate 1,000 people a day. Hays said the clinic will be staffed by 24 people initially, but that number is expected to increase as the number of doses of vaccine provided to the state increases.

“Large community vaccination clinics like this one at the Augusta Civic Center are a key part of our effort to vaccinate as many Maine people as quickly, efficiently, and equitably as possible,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a provided statement. “We thank MaineGeneral and the City of Augusta for their collaboration on this site, the Maine Legislature for their support of this location, and all those on the front lines of administering vaccines for their work to protect the health of Maine people.”

Mainers age 70 and older are the only people currently eligible under Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan. Eligibility is expected to open up for people ages 65-69 after that phase, and to certain front-line workers.

Eligible residents who want to be vaccinated at the Augusta mass vaccination site must register in advance using the MaineGeneral process by calling 866-968-8219 or visiting mainegeneral.org/covid.

To date, a total of 255,849 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Maine. That figure includes 180,465 first doses as well as 75,384 second doses, according to figures the Maine CDC issued Wednesday.

In a memo to Augusta City Councilors this week, Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo said he was notified Tuesday morning that MaineGeneral was notified by state officials that the hospital, rather than the state, should contract with the Civic Center to use the space.

Bridgeo said he advised Hays the vaccination clinic could go ahead as planned Wednesday, while the changed contract is being drafted and approved.

The former Scarborough Downs site in Cumberland County was announced as a mass vaccination site on Jan. 21. Less than a week later, Northern Light Health announced a partnership with the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor to set up a mass vaccination site at the center.

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