Steve Damien of Auburn receives his COVID-19 vaccination Wednesday from registered nurse Jennifer Jordan at the Auburn Mall. Damien was the first person to receive a shot at the region’s first mass vaccination site. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Maine residents 50 and older can start getting vaccinated against COVID-19 on Tuesday and those 16 and over will be eligible starting April 19, under an accelerated schedule announced Friday.

Previously, eligibility for people in their 50s was scheduled to open April 1, and all adults would have been eligible by May 1. Currently, people 60 and older are prioritized for vaccinations, along with teachers, school staff and licensed child care workers.

The new timeline comes as state health officials report a steady increase in Mainers getting inoculated and anticipate an increase in vaccine supply from the federal government. At the same time, some vaccine providers are reporting that openings for vaccination appointments aren’t getting snapped up as quickly as they were.

“Maine has been working around the clock to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a news release. “As we continue to make progress, and with more appointments becoming available and an increase in supply expected in the coming weeks, we believe it is appropriate to accelerate our timeline and make more people eligible earlier.”

During an online news conference scheduled quickly Friday afternoon, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said demand for appointments appeared to slow this week at vaccination sites across the state.

“Throughout the course of this week, we began hearing that slots were not going as quickly as they had been a couple of weeks ago when we moved into the 60-plus category,” Dr. Nirav Shah said. “In some parts of the state, we started hearing in the last day or so that a few slots were starting to go unfilled. That doesn’t work for us.”

Shah said Friday’s announcement “continues our forward momentum. We don’t want to slow down the line one bit. (This) allows us to keep making steady, sustained progress to vaccinate the state.”

Mills noted that while accelerated eligibility is welcome news for Mainers who are eager to be vaccinated, “people should keep in mind that, even though they may be eligible, it still may take time to get an appointment and get shots into arms. We will continue to work with vaccine providers across Maine to expand our ability to deliver shots, and we are pleased that we are able to take this important step forward.”

The announcement came as Maine reported 238 new COVID-19 cases Friday and with the daily average of new cases trending upward. In total, 48,070 cases have been reported since the pandemic began, including 37,169 confirmed and 10,901 probable cases. The state also reported one additional death from the virus Friday, bringing the toll to 728.

On Thursday, Maine’s seven-day daily average of new cases reached 200 for the first time in more than a month, and health officials said they were taking a look at what might be driving the increase. Cases peaked above 600 daily in mid-January following the holiday season but then decreased within a month, only to level off before beginning the recent upward trend. The seven-day average was at 203 Friday, up from 138 one month ago.

There were 77 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 22 in critical care and nine on ventilators. Overall, hospitalizations have fallen since January but are starting to climb again as cases increase. There were 76 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Thursday, including 23 in critical care and six on ventilators.

At the same time, vaccinations continue to increase. As of Friday, more than 352,000 Maine residents had received their first dose of vaccine – more than 26 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population, with nearly 16 percent being fully vaccinated. To date, about 64 percent of Maine people 60 or older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with 35 percent completing the vaccine series.

“With nearly two out of every three Maine residents age 60 and older now protected with at least one dose of vaccine, we’re prepared to open up appointments to even more Maine people,” said Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Lambrew said the new eligibility guidelines will make vaccines available to about 165,000 Mainers in their 50s – about 32,000 people in that category have already been vaccinated under previous eligibility categories, such as health care workers – and about 554,000 Mainers ages 16 to 49.

Maine is following other states, including New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut, that have announced similar changes since the Biden administration announced last week that it plans to deliver enough vaccine to make all Americans eligible by May 1, Lambrew said.

“As more vaccine becomes available in the coming days and weeks, we’ll continue to work with our valued partners throughout the state to match eligible Maine people, particularly those who are at high risk, with those doses and move Maine closer to recovery.”

Lambrew and Shah said the state will continue efforts to expand vaccine access by adding inoculation sites and increasing capacity at existing clinics. They also cautioned people to continue to be patient as vaccine providers update their scheduling systems and the state continues to develop its own scheduling system.

Meanwhile, some vaccination clinics have noted many unfilled appointments.

Northern Light Health posted a Facebook announcement Friday morning, saying “we still have vaccine appointments open at several of our locations across the state, including Bangor, Portland, Fairfield and Dover-Foxcroft. If you or someone you know is a school staff member, a licensed childcare provider, or age 60 or older, you are eligible to schedule your vaccine appointment now at covid.northernlighthealth.org.”

Shah didn’t know exactly why some vaccine appointments are going unfilled, though he noted that about 50 percent of Mainers in their 60s have been vaccinated, an age group that became eligible this month.

“There will be time to analyze whether it’s a function of folks being busy (or) hesitant,” Shah said. “We’re trying to get a better handle on that right now. If we see that the line is even even potentially starting to slow down, we want to add more folks to it so it doesn’t do that.”

Some vaccine providers responded quickly to the state’s expanded eligibility announcement. InterMed, which has primary care and specialty practices in Portland, South Portland and Yarmouth, sent an email to patients Friday afternoon.

“InterMed has contacted the majority of patients 60 and older, and we now begin outreach to patients in the 50-plus age group, starting with those most at risk of serious complications from COVID,” it stated. “There are indications that vaccine supply will increase in coming weeks, and we’re hopeful that we’ll soon be able to offer vaccine appointments to many more patients.”

InterMed also warned patients that “despite an increase in Mainers who are fully vaccinated, we continue to see more than 200 new COVID cases each day. Please continue to follow precautions: cover your nose and mouth with a mask, practice social distancing and wash hands regularly. It’s been a long year, but the sooner we knock this virus down the sooner we can resume our normal lives.”

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