Paramedic Denise Nessmann gives a shot to Cindy Foster, 62, of Hollis, on March 17 at the drive-thru clinic at the Buxton Fire and Rescue station. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine reported 218 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday as the state prepares for larger vaccine shipments to arrive amid expanding eligibility. There were no additional deaths.

Those 50 and older became eligible for vaccinations this week, and vaccine shipments are expected to increase by 28 percent next week. Mainers age 16 and older will become eligible April 19, although that could be moved up depending on supply and demand.

Community health centers could soon take on a greater vaccination role, but so far the number of doses they are receiving hasn’t increased. The Biden administration is sending additional funds to community health clinics for vaccinations and expanding eligibility, but has offered few details.

Vaccine shipment increases over the next few weeks are expected to come from the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while Moderna and Pfizer shipments may be stagnant or even slightly decline over the next few weeks.

The federal government will ship 45,200 vaccine doses to Maine next week, up from the 35,190 doses this week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of the increase is from a boost in shipments of the shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, from 1,600 doses this week to 8,100 doses expected next week. Maine also is receiving 23,400 doses of Pfizer and 13,700 doses of Moderna vaccines next week.

“What we are seeing is the bouncing back of the supply (of Johnson & Johnson vaccine) after having cleared out the cupboards,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He said supplies of the vaccine had to be replenished through increased production shortly after federal regulators approved it for use. “We’ve been told the largest increases to our vaccine supply over the next three weeks or so will come from J&J.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is more flexible because it takes only one shot instead of two, and doesn’t require cold storage as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines do. That allows the J&J vaccine to be used in more rural areas and for seniors who are homebound. Shah said hospitals in Millinocket and Skowhegan, and other rural health care providers, will be more likely to receive the J&J vaccine when supplies increase.

Daily COVID-19 cases remain at a seven-day average of about 200 per day, far lower than the mid-January peak of more than 600 per day, but an increase from the 150-per-day average in mid-February. The Mills administration is continuing with reopening plans, which include allowing bars and tasting rooms to open on Friday, and increasing limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Maine has gone more than 30 days without a death in a long-term care facility, Shah said. Residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers, along with health care workers, were among the first to get shots when vaccinations began in late December.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that federally-funded community health centers would be “invited” to expand eligibility to their frontline essential workers and patients with high-risk health conditions. Maine had been taking a strictly age-based approach to vaccinations, but the Biden administration stepped in with exceptions, including directing the federal retail pharmacy program to vaccinate educators and child care workers through March 31.

Shah said he does not know whether the expanded eligibility the Biden administration announced will be a mandate or a recommendation, or whether more vaccine doses will be shipped to the community health centers.

Bryan Wyatt, director of policy and communications for the Maine Primary Care Association representing 29 community health centers in Maine, said the group heard the news Thursday and is meeting to discuss the new federal policy.

“Regardless of the news this morning, Maine’s health centers remain severely supply constrained as they are consistently only getting around 1,000 doses per week from the state. The reality is our health centers are doing everything they can, with what they are given, but stand ready and willing to do more should their portion of the state’s allocation be increased,” Wyatt said in a statement.

Eighteen community health centers in Maine will receive a total of $41 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan, according to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. The funding will be used to support vaccination efforts and primary and preventive care. The distributions include $10.6 million for Penobscot Community Health Center in Bangor and $2.5 million for Portland Community Health Center.

Pingree voted for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, along with U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, both voted against it.

As of Thursday, Maine reported that 387,648 people have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine –  28.8 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents. Also, 235,740 people – 17.5 percent of the population – are fully vaccinated.

Of those between age 50 and 59 who became eligible Tuesday, 40,538 of the 194,000 – 21 percent – have received at least their first shot. Some of those received it before this week if they qualified as school staff, health care workers or other priority groups. More than 271,000 of the 394,000 Mainers age 60 and older – 68 percent – have received at least the first dose.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 49,190 cases of COVID-19, and 731 deaths.

Currently, there are 78 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 30 in intensive care.

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