Augusta firefighter/paramedic Tim Pomelow administers a shot to Janice Bunnell during a vaccination clinic at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta on March 20. The event was hosted by Augusta Fire & Rescue. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Maine is expected to accelerate its COVID-19 vaccination program next week thanks to a huge influx of Johnson & Johnson vaccine that will give residents more opportunities to sign up for an immunization appointment.

The increase comes as anyone 50 and older becomes eligible on Thursday to get immunized through the retail pharmacy in Maine, including at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Hannaford, Walgreen’s and Shaw’s pharmacies. A Biden administration directive setting aside doses at pharmacies for school staff expired Wednesday.

Maine is slated to receive 54,790 doses for its state vaccination program next week, according to federal data released Wednesday. That’s a record number for the state program, largely due to a spike in Johnson & Johnson doses from 8,100 this week to 20,600 next week. In total, that’s an increase of 9,590 doses over this week for the state vaccination program.

It doesn’t appear that a manufacturing mixup at a Johnson & Johnson plant in Baltimore will affect Maine’s allotment next week. The New York Times reported Wednesday night that future shipments of Johnson & Johnson doses in the United States were being halted while the Food and Drug Administration investigates the foul-up that ruined about 15 million doses.

Johnson & Johnson issued a statement Wednesday night acknowledging the problem at the Emergent Biosolutions plant and clarifying that the ruined vaccines are not part of its current supply.

“This quality control process identified one batch of drug substance that did not meet quality standards at Emergent Biosolutions, a site not yet authorized to manufacture drug substance for our COVID-19 vaccine,” the statement said. “This batch was never advanced to the filling and finishing stages of our manufacturing process.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to an email Wednesday night asking how the problem with Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing process might affect Maine’s allotments next week and in the future.

Also on Wednesday, Maine reported 251 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths.

The jump in vaccine doses could move up the timeline for people younger than 50 to get their shots. Maine is currently lagging behind most states for expanding eligibility to all adults to get vaccinated. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have either already opened up eligibility for all adults or plan to do so before Maine’s current date of April 19 when anyone 16 and older could schedule a vaccine, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation health policy research center.

John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center, said appointments at MaineHealth sites, which include the Scarborough Downs mass vaccination site and others, are filled up for next week, but they are ready for an increase in doses.

“As far as expanding the age eligibility, we’re very confident we could handle any demand that would come with that,” Porter said.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, which operates mass vaccination clinics at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor and the Portland Expo, said that in Greater Portland, demand is still outpacing supply, but demand is starting to “taper off” in northern Maine.

Jarvis said it’s not his call to expand eligibility, that’s up to state officials, but that as vaccine supply increases “we are having appointments open across the state of Maine.”

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said that the state agency is still waiting to confirm the numbers posted on the federal website for next week’s supplies. He said the state should have more information on Thursday about where the doses will be allocated in the state.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, in remarks to the media on Tuesday, noted that with robust supplies, this week is a prime opportunity or anyone 50 and older to get a shot without having to scramble for an appointment.

He said if Maine wants to return to being “Vacationland” it must first be “Vaccinationland.”

Shah said health officials are constantly evaluating the balance between the supply of doses and the demand, and when there’s too much supply and not enough demand, the state will open eligibility to more age categories.

For this week and at least through next week, vaccine supplies will be robust.

Those 50 and older became eligible for vaccination on March 23.

The 54,790 doses allocated to Maine next week do not include doses sent directly to the federal retail pharmacy program. That program received about 23,000 doses this week, but its next allocation likely won’t be known until this weekend.

If the retail pharmacy allocation is similar to this week’s, Maine would receive nearly 78,000 doses next week, a record that would surpass the 72,000 doses received this week.

For the state allocation, Maine is receiving 20,600 Johnson & Johnson doses, 19,890 Pfizer doses and 14,300 Moderna doses next week.

Despite increasing numbers of people getting vaccinated, case counts remain high, as the virus still is circulating among people not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 50,504 positive cases of COVID-19 and 743 deaths.

Through Wednesday, 426,899 people have received at least a first dose of the vaccine, or 31.76 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population. Also, 265,887 – 19.78 percent – have received their final dose.

Currently, there are 74 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 22 in intensive care.

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