Reta Morrill receives a vaccination from Dr. Chuck Radis during a Feb. 14 immunization clinic at Bracket Memorial Methodist Church on Peaks Island. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine is on pace to begin vaccinating residents 65 to 69 as early as next week, a welcome sign amid a continued downward trend of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Additionally, another retail pharmacy giant – Walgreens – is set to begin vaccinating those 70 and older in Maine and 22 other states this week. Walgreens joins Walmart and Sam’s Club locations as places where people can schedule vaccine appointments, in addition to clinics that already have been set up by hospitals, primary care centers and other health care agencies.

Although no firm timetable has been set, Gov. Janet Mills and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew have said that Maine would likely move to begin immunizing 65- to 69-year-olds once two-thirds of the 70-and-older population had gotten their first shots. With about 53 percent of those 70 and older now immunized and with vaccine supplies increasing, that milestone could be reached next week.

“In addition to reaching a point when a significant majority of Maine residents age 70 and older have been vaccinated, weekly vaccine allocation from our federal partners could affect the timing of when people age 65-69 can begin scheduling vaccination appointments,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Robert Long said in an email response to questions Monday.

The Maine CDC reported 97 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the lowest total since 89 cases were reported one week ago and the second time in eight days that the agency reported fewer than 100 new cases. There also were no additional deaths reported for the second consecutive day.

Pandemic conditions have improved substantially since mid-January, with daily case numbers falling to levels not seen since early November. The seven-day daily case average now stands at 118, down from 268 cases two weeks ago and from 499 cases one month ago.

Despite positive trends in Maine and across the country, the United States has now crossed the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, by far the most of any country. The Biden administration memorialized them with a candle lighting service in Washington on Monday night.

Maine’s COVID-19 fatality rate of 487 deaths per 1 million residents is the fourth-lowest in the nation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only Alaska, Vermont and Hawaii have had fewer deaths per capita than Maine. New Jersey has the worst death rate in the nation, with 2,558 deaths per 1 million people.

In addition to Maine’s increased allotment of vaccines, an additional 4,680 doses are expected to arrive in Maine on Wednesday for use at Walgreens locations. While appointments were not yet available Monday, Walgreens is expected to begin scheduling sometime on Tuesday. People interested in scheduling an appointment should check Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 43,594 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in Maine, and 658 people have died, according to the Maine CDC. As of Monday, there were 72 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19, including 22 in critical care and six on ventilators. The number of hospitalizations has been dropping dramatically since peaking at 207 on Jan. 13.

“Overall, there are a lot of positive signs on the horizon,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said on the “Maine Calling” public radio show on Monday morning. Shah did warn that one major risk is the arrival of a more contagious COVID-19 variant – first detected in the United Kingdom – that has now been detected in two people in Maine.

But Shah said with an aggressive vaccination program and continued use of public health measures like wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and staying physically distant from others, it is possible to stay ahead of the variants and drive down cases. He pointed out that the U.K. has done a good job limiting the spread of the variant by aggressive vaccination and some early restrictive measures.

“What that tells me is that being overrun by the new variants is not inevitable,” Shah said.

The slowdown in new cases and hospitalizations comes as COVID-19 vaccinations are increasing in Maine, with 296,253 total shots given, including 200,322 first doses and 95,931 second doses. Those who have received at least the first dose of the vaccine make up 14.9 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million people.

For seniors – a major focus of the vaccine rollout since mid-January – 103,198 of the roughly 193,000 Mainers who are 70 and older have now received at least the first dose of the vaccine. There are an estimated 90,000 Mainers in the 65-69 age range.

Maine will receive a 14 percent increase in vaccine doses for this week, with more than 27,000 doses shipped. Additionally, the federal government’s pharmacy partnership is expected to double the number of doses available in Maine this week at Walmart, Sam’s Club and now Walgreens, going from about 4,300 doses per week available to those 70 and older to nearly 9,000 doses.

That leaves Maine with about 36,000 doses to administer this week. That is about double the number from late last month, when Maine was routinely receiving about 18,000 doses per week.

Shah said while vaccine doses are more plentiful, supplies are still the biggest constraint to immunizing more groups of people, such as younger people and front-line workers including teachers. He said if supply ramps up in the coming weeks, the state could “throw the doors more open” to widespread vaccination.

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