Kristi Holmquist, a fourth-grade teacher at Dirigo Elementary School in Dixfield, receives a COVID-19 vaccination Friday afternoon from nurse Penny Michaud at a drive-thru clinic at Med-Care Ambulance in Mexico. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The state’s top public health official said Tuesday that Maine should expect to see modest increases in COVID-19 vaccine supplies over the next two weeks, and a substantial boost is likely throughout the country by the end of March or the beginning of April.

The state also announced a new program to give free rides to vaccine appointments for people with transportation challenges, a development that could help address gaps in vaccinating vulnerable individuals.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said next week’s supplies of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would be at most a few thousand more doses than this week. Maine is receiving 45,150 doses this week, a drop from the 55,060 doses last week but still far more than previous weeks.

“For the upcoming few weeks the increases in both Pfizer and Moderna are thought to be modest,” he said during Tuesday’s briefing with the media.

The 55,060 doses resulted largely from “clearing the shelves” of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which boosted Maine’s vaccine supply by 15,000 doses last week. It will take a few weeks to fully ramp up production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but Shah expects Maine will receive substantial increases in the last week of March and into April.

Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said Maine’s age-based system is still on track for those 50 and older to begin scheduling vaccine appointments April 1. Currently, vaccinations are open to those 60 and older, as well as school staff and child care workers of any age.

The ride program announced Tuesday will provide “rides for any Maine resident who is unable to drive, lacks reliable transportation or is otherwise unable to travel to their appointment,” the state said in a news release. To arrange for a ride after making a vaccine appointment, call 855-608-5172. Rides are available from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Sundays.

“It is a new tool to promote equity in Maine’s vaccination plan,” Lambrew said.

Shah also said warmer springtime weather combined with increasing vaccinations of school staff could lead to more in-person learning at schools this spring, although any changes likely would be made at the local level in accordance with state guidelines. Most Maine schools offer a hybrid format where students attend school in-person two days per week and remotely the other three days.

Massachusetts announced Tuesday that all elementary schools in the state would return to full-time in-person learning on April 5, and middle schools by April 28. A high school plan would be announced later.

Maine has not announced any plans for more in-person learning, but Shah said the warmer weather this spring may help, such as promoting eating lunch outside, having more outdoor learning and improving ventilation. The virus transmits more easily in indoor spaces that are poorly ventilated.

“We’re hoping as we get into warmer weather with more widespread vaccination among staff, we might be on a pathway to more in-person education,” he said. “The question on the table for us is how we can move to even more in-person education.”

Maine health officials reported 17 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, and 133 new cases.

None of the 17 deaths occurred within the last 24 hours. The Maine CDC periodically reviews death certificates to see if cases of COVID-19 contributed to any deaths that were not previously recorded with the health agency.

Sixteen of the deaths reported Tuesday occurred between Jan. 25 and March 1, while one occurred in November 2020. Twelve of the deaths were people 80 or older, three were people in their 60s, one person was in their 50s and another was in their 70s.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 46,059 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in Maine, and 723 deaths. With 133 new cases, it was the second day in a row the daily case count dropped below recent seven-day daily averages of case counts in the 160s. Cases have declined sharply since a mid-January peak of more than 600 per day, but the decrease has leveled off since mid-February.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 increased slightly to 75 on Tuesday, including 21 people in critical care and seven on ventilators. Like cases, hospitalizations have leveled off in recent weeks after dropping steadily from a peak of more than 200 in mid-January.

Shah also discussed Tuesday the new U.S. CDC guidelines, which say that people who are fully vaccinated can gather with others who are fully vaccinated, or with a single household of people who are unvaccinated but at low risk.

“Right now as a country and as a state we are in an odd and uneven period between ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet,'” Shah said. “‘No longer’ must fully vaccinated folks avoid gathering with fully vaccinated friends. ‘No longer’ must fully vaccinated folks avoid seeing their unvaccinated grandchildren. But there’s still an element of ‘not yet.’ ‘Not yet’ should fully vaccinated folks abandon masks altogether, or gather in large groups, or go to raves.”

Through Tuesday, 274,616 people had gotten at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, representing 20.43 percent of Maine’s population. Also, 156,174 people, or 11.62 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population, have been fully vaccinated, either receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Approximately 74 percent of residents over 70 have gotten at least one shot.

Amid an increase in vaccinations and a leveling off of cases, Maine is set to relax its COVID-19 restrictions heading into the summer tourist season. Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that residents from New England states are no longer required to quarantine or produce a negative test result upon arriving in Maine. Previously, the only exempt states were Vermont and New Hampshire.

Starting May 1, travel restrictions will be lifted for all states, unless Maine places restrictions on targeted states based on increased case counts and other metrics trending in the wrong direction.

Other loosened restrictions include allowing more people at indoor and outdoor gatherings, although spacing and masking requirements remain. Indoor gatherings will be permitted to operate at 50 percent capacity starting March 26, and 75 percent on May 24. Outdoor gatherings will go from 75 percent of capacity on March 26 to 100 percent on May 2.

Bars and tasting rooms will be permitted to open on March 26 and must follow the same guidelines as restaurants.

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