Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer with their children, Wayland Shambaugh, 6, and Cordelia Shambaugh, 9, are photographed outside their restaurant, Woodford Food & Beverage, in Portland on Wednesday. The restaurant has been closed to indoor dining for almost a year. Shambaugh wrote a letter to state officials urging them to prioritize front-line workers for vaccinations. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sherri Laux feels like the state of Maine has abandoned her. 

At 57, she has five of the pre-existing conditions that make her more at risk for COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but she won’t be eligible for a vaccine until at least April because of the state’s primarily age-based approach to vaccination. 

“I’m very scared,” Laux said. “I wanted this vaccine so badly, I registered to be a participant in a study. I’ve had two open-heart surgeries, I have pulmonary hypertension, I’ve got (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and congestive heart failure. I might be 57 years old, but my body is not 57 years old.”

Maine’s vaccine rollout, which originally focused on a phased approach that would have prioritized older Mainers and essential workers on the front lines, has been changed numerous times. Last month, the state scrapped all prioritization of at-risk workers beyond those in health care to focus strictly on vaccinating older Mainers first, but later bowed to the Biden’s administration’s directive to move education workers to the front of the line.

Many Mainers, including those like Laux with pre-existing conditions, older adults still waiting for their turn and hospitality workers on the front lines, are feeling left behind by a process that, while it continues to evolve, has left them anxious to receive one of the potentially lifesaving vaccines.

VACCINE SHUFFLE

Initially, the first phase, known as Phase 1A, included health care workers, paramedics, and nursing home residents and staff. Phase 1B was to include those 75 and older, as well as essential workers such as grocery store clerks, postal employees, teachers and police officers. 

Later, in response to new federal guidelines, Gov. Janet Mills said she would update the plan to prioritize vaccinations for those 65 and older and those with pre-existing conditions.

Then last month, officials changed the plan yet again and announced a purely age-based system.

Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the controversial decision to adopt an age-based system stemmed from scientific research showing that age is among the strongest indicators of serious illness or death from COVID-19. More than 85 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Maine have been among those 70 or older, and 98 percent were over 50, according to CDC statistics.

At the time, Mills said the approach would benefit the most people in Maine the soonest and was “the right one for our state.” 

It would, she said,  improve efficiency by eliminating the logistical nightmares around confirming someone’s eligibility based on medical conditions or their job, while providing additional predictability during the pandemic.

Not long after, though, the plan was changed again after President Biden called on states to prioritize educators. Mills acquiesced to the president’s directive, announcing last week that K-12 school staff and childcare providers would be eligible for the vaccine, regardless of age. 

The news was welcomed by educators who were frustrated with the age-based plans, though the state said the decision to prioritize teachers could slow its effort to vaccinate those 60 and over if the federal vaccine supply does not increase.

According to the Maine CDC, more than 21 percent of the state’s residents have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and more than 12 percent have been fully vaccinated, receiving either the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

MIXED OPINIONS 

Aside from the addition of education workers, the state’s age-based approach still stands. 

Those 50 and older are expected to be eligible in April, 40 and older in May and 30 and older in June. It is estimated that vaccines would become available to those 29 and younger in July.

Last week, however, Biden said vaccine production has ramped up to the point where all eligible adults should have access to vaccines by the end of May.

Many have supported the plan to begin vaccinating teachers and other school workers immediately.

Carolyn Kanicki, 64, has not received her vaccine yet and likes the age-based approach. However, as a retired schoolteacher, the Rockland resident believes it is important to get students back in the classroom.

“I support that even if it means I’m bumped back,” she said.

Not everyone shares that view.

“There’s been so much uncertainty that adding new uncertainty … was kind of discouraging,” Bruce Martel said about the late addition of school staff to the priority list.

Martel, who lives in Saco, said he generally supported the age-based approach and is uncertain how vaccinating teachers will help reopen schools. It seems, he said, that if a student gets infected, the same quarantine measures would still have to apply to keep kids safe.

“It seems like having more of the general population (safe) is what’s going to make (reopening) possible,” he said.

Martel, 62, has not been vaccinated yet, but he is more concerned about people with pre-existing conditions who are going to have to keep waiting.

“Is this list going to change again?” he said. “I’m glad they’re changing their minds when the situation warrants. … There’s no virtue in never reconsidering, but I’m a little unhappy with this particular reconsideration.”

Laux agreed.

“I don’t want to take a vaccine away from somebody,” she said, “(but) I am just as at-risk as a 90-year-old person in good health.” 

If teachers are going to be prioritized, she wishes people with pre-existing conditions could be integrated into the group, too. 

“It angers me a little bit because I know … things need to be back to normal, but people like us who have been in one apartment, all winter long, all summer long, afraid to go out except for when absolutely necessary, we need to get back to some sort of normalcy as well,” she said. “I think we are one of those subpopulations that have been forgotten about or pushed aside. I feel like my life is less important, I really do, than a teacher’s. And that really hurts.” 

BACK OF THE LINE

Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer outside their restaurant, Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland. He says that giving hospitality workers the “reasonable protection of vaccination before sending them out on the field to help save our economy is the right and responsible thing to do.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Birch Shambaugh didn’t like it when Mills adopted the age-based method and removed the prioritization for foodservice and grocery workers, but at least he understood it. 

The change threw a “tremendous curveball” into his plans for reopening Woodford Food and Beverage, his restaurant on Forest Avenue in Portland, which as of next week will have been closed to indoor dining for a full year. 

It was a hard pill to swallow, he said, but coupled with last week’s announcement that the state would loosen travel restrictions and capacity limits ahead of the tourism season – a decision largely heralded by the business community as a positive step – it was impossible to fathom.

“How can Maine possibly ease restrictions, and attempt to prime the pump of our critical tourism industry in advance of the summer season, without providing the reasonable protection of allowing those on the front line of that equation to confidently maintain health and safety for themselves, their families and the communities they live in?” Shambaugh asked in a letter to state officials. “Without being able to vaccinate our staff, and the floodgates of exposure from other states having been ratcheted open, how can we possibly return to normal operations?”

Affording Maine’s hospitality workers the “reasonable protection of vaccination before sending them out on the field to help save our economy is the right and responsible thing to do,” he said. 

A year ago, Shambaugh’s restaurant employed roughly 25 people. That number has been cut in half, but Shambaugh said he and his wife, Fayth Preyer, are proud to have been able to keep that many. 

Their ages are scattered across the spectrum, meaning that if they wait until all staff are vaccinated to fully reopen, as they hope to, it might not happen until midsummer. 

“That’s a challenging reality to face,” he said. 

They opened outdoor dining in the summer and kept it running through the late fall and into winter. As spring approaches, they’ve opened it up again – “not anything we’d consider to be a substantial amount of business,” Shambaugh said, but “it’s something. It’s a heartbeat, no matter how feeble.” 

That’s part of what makes the changes and lack of protection so frustrating. 

“We’re all dying to get back to business,” he said. “We just would prefer not to have to die in order to do that.”

EVERYONE MATTERS

Holly Mansfield was relieved when she found out her dad, who is 76 and homebound, would finally be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. 

Weeks later, he still hasn’t been able to get an appointment, and as more groups become eligible, the competition for a coveted slot only increases. 

“It was upsetting to me to read in the newspaper that it was opening up to people 60-plus,” Mansfield said. “To hear teachers are going to get it is even worse. Obviously, teachers should get vaccinated and should be a priority, but my dad should be getting his, as well.” 

An Oxford County resident, her father has diabetes, and with an amputated leg, he cannot drive. 

Mansfield, his only daughter, lives in Massachusetts and hasn’t been able to visit for fear of accidentally bringing COVID-19 home to him. 

There’s a woman who looks in on him and sometimes drives him to appointments, she said, but Mansfield is not sure how careful the woman is, and it “only takes one person.” 

“If they decided they’re going to prioritize this older age group, they really needed to follow through,” she said. “It seems completely disorganized.”

When Northern Light Health opened its online COVID-19 vaccine registration portal last week, Susan Alimi was ready. As part of the newly eligible 60-plus age group, she was hoping to get one of the highly coveted spots, so she, her husband and her son in Massachusetts were all poised with fingers on the refresh button. 

It was her son who ultimately booked the appointment, and Alimi, 66, said her son felt like he had won the lottery for her. 

Alimi, of Fryeburg, was lucky to get an appointment before all the slots were filled – even luckier, given that just two days later, Mills announced that teachers and other education staff were now eligible as well. 

“If I had not been able to book something, I would certainly feel that now there would be more competition with 40,000 teachers,” she said. 

On the other hand, Alimi said she is happy for teachers, who also deserve a dose of the vaccine, and acknowledged that it’s difficult to determine who should be prioritized.

“Teachers are happy, but there’s everybody else that’s just as important,” she said. “Everybody wants to be at the front of the line.” 

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