Shots of Johnson & Johnson vaccine were given at a drive-thru clinic Wednesday at Buxton Fire and Rescue, as the town answered Dr. Nirav Shah’s call for more vaccination sites. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Marian Chamberlain admits she was skittish. She’s generally not a big fan of vaccines, but when she heard she could get a COVID-19 shot at Buxton’s Bar Mills fire station without even getting out of her car, she swallowed her worries, drove over from her home in nearby Standish and stuck out her arm.

“I would prefer not to do it, but I understand the importance of it,” Chamberlain said Wednesday as she waited the obligatory 15 minutes following her single-dose, Johnson & Johnson vaccination. “You just have to believe in the science and the scientists.”

Besides, can getting the shot be any easier?

“When I first heard they had done it last week, I thought, ‘What a great idea,’ ” Chamberlain said. “You’re going to reach the population out in the country who are going to be reluctant to go in town.”

Much of the news about Maine’s vaccination efforts in recent weeks has focused on high-volume sites like Maine Health’s operation at Scarborough Downs or Northern Light Mercy Hospital’s recently opened clinic at the Portland Expo.

But as Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, noted Tuesday, an expected surge in Maine’s vaccine inventory over the coming weeks brings with it a new challenge: We need more vaccination sites.

Much to its credit, my hometown of Buxton is answering that call.

“Emergencies happen locally – and we best deal with them locally. And that’s what we’re doing right here,” Buxton Fire-Rescue Chief Nathan Schools said amid the midday hubbub.

Paramedic Denise Nessmann gives a shot to Cindy Foster, 62, of Hollis during Wednesday’s drive-thru clinic at the Buxton Fire and Rescue station. The process took no more than 25 minutes. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As he spoke, workers from the town office greeted drivers and checked them in for their scheduled appointments – made via an internet link put out by the town. From there, the smiling, soon-to-be vaccine recipients drove around to the back of the station, where a firefighter waved them through a garage door and into one of three bays normally filled with fire and rescue apparatus.

Once inside, recipients stopped for a quick medical background check. Then they pulled up a few feet, where a member of Buxton’s Rescue squad stood at the ready with that long-awaited injection.

Exiting the front of the station, they followed the orange cones across Portland Road to the Municipal Building complex, where fire department personnel guided them into the waiting area to monitor for side effects.

Finally, off they went, fully vaccinated. The entire process took no more than 25 minutes.

“If you want efficiency, your fire and rescue folks are probably the people to ask,” Dan Mayo of Buxton said moments after receiving his shot. “They’re on the ball, they’re dedicated to the community, and they’re looking to really make a difference.”

The drive-thru clinic, one of Maine’s first, is part of a pilot project approved by the Maine CDC that includes fire and rescue personnel in Buxton and Old Orchard Beach.

Drawing on their logistical and medical skills, the state provided the two department with 800 doses of Johnson & Johnson two weeks ago – Old Orchard Beach dispensed 370 shots at its walk-in clinic on March 10, while Buxton put 315 needles in arms last Friday and another 115 on Wednesday.

The clinics closely follow the state’s current eligibility guidelines. In order to get a shot, you must be a Maine resident over 60 or a health care worker or first responder covered previously during Phase 1a in Maine’s vaccination program. The age limit will drop to 50 on April 1 and, on May 1, to any state resident over 16.

Meaning there’s still a lot of work to do.

Last fall, working with Northern Light Homecare & Hospice, Buxton Chief Schools ran a local drive-thru clinic for the flu vaccine – he saw it as a dress rehearsal for the inevitable COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

Now, Schools said, he and Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne in Old Orchard Beach are ready, willing and able to administer 500 shots per week in each community for at least eight weeks – a total of 8,000 vaccinations if the Maine CDC can keep the doses coming.

That may not sound like much compared to the 1,000-shot-per-day sites. But if other fire and rescue departments throughout Maine were to follow in Buxton’s and Old Orchard Beach’s footsteps, imagine how much more quickly Maine might cross the threshold into COVID-19 herd immunity.

Dan Profenno, 60, of Portland gets vaccinated by EMT Marisa Morrison on Wednesday at Buxton’s drive-thru clinic, one of Maine’s first. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Even better, imagine how many Mainers who can’t travel far or feel queasy about vaccines might get a shot if it came not from some far-off health conglomerate, but from their local first responders.

“Sometimes they see us at the grocery store. Sometimes they see us on calls. So it’s familiar – and I think that would help,” said Buxton Rescue Capt. Denise Nessmann during a short break from administering vaccines. Like most of those staffing Wednesday’s three-hour clinic, the 27-year veteran was there on her own time.

Sure, it’s different to see people flocking to the fire station rather than the fire station rushing to them. And while Schools said the clinics do not compromise the Buxton department’s ability to respond to an emergency, running a vaccination clinic normally wouldn’t be part of a fire chief job description.

“I didn’t get into the fire service specifically to do this,” Schools said. “But our mission is to protect the health and safety of our community. And this is the biggest public health mobilization in our lifetime.”

It’s also, for folks like Marian Chamberlain and Dan Mayo, the light at the end of a long tunnel.

Mayo, who plays bass for several local bands, can’t wait to be performing again beyond the small, backyard gigs that have sustained him all these months.

Chamberlain actually was exposed to the virus in December and had to quarantine in a friend’s empty house for fear she might infect her finance, who was scheduled to have surgery. As for her misgivings about getting the shot, she figured if her 92-year-old father could do it, there’s no good reason she couldn’t too.

“I think I feel better about it now than I did coming in, for sure,” Chamberlain said as she inched her car toward freedom from the pandemic. “It’s behind me now.”


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