State and federal health officials will hold the first of roughly a dozen mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinics next week as part of a larger push into harder-to-reach communities across Maine.

The Mills administration announced Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “mobile vaccination unit” will be at Oxford Casino starting Monday and is slated to hold similar, multiday clinics in 10 additional communities over the next two months. The appointment-only clinics are expected to administer up to 250 shots a day of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, targeting rural, medically underserved communities stretching from the western Maine mountains to Calais and Madawaska.

The new partnership between the state and FEMA comes at a time when ever-larger shipments of vaccine doses mean that, starting Wednesday, all Maine residents 16 or older will be eligible for vaccination. Yet new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are trending upward in Maine – with 290 new COVID-19 cases but no deaths reported Tuesday – and younger Mainers are contracting the disease at higher rates.

“There are concerning signs on the horizon there,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing Tuesday. “At the same time, vaccination rates are going up. The question is can we outrun this increase? And we’re on a good clip. We are one of the better-performing states. If any state has a good shot of outrunning this increase in case rates, it is going to be Maine.”

Maine is the second state in New England – and the sixth nationwide – slated to utilize FEMA’s mobile vaccination units. Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency will work with local officials and community organizations to reach out to high-risk or vulnerable residents to help make appointments.

Residents of Oxford County can check on availability for Monday’s clinic by calling Maine’s Community Vaccination Line at 888-445-4111. Additional details on future clinics and scheduling will be posted on the state’s vaccination website, maine.gov/covid19/vaccines,  in the coming days.

“This is a prototype that was developed by the Biden Administration … to figure out how it can support both rural states and large states,” Lambrew said. “We have seen their community vaccination clinics in big stadiums in urban areas. This is one of their first ones that will be in rural, underserved communities.”

Additionally, the White House announced Tuesday that Maine will receive $18.4 million to further expand access to COVID-19 vaccines and to address other “health equity” issues in rural or medically underserved communities. Part of that funding, which stems from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently passed by Congress, will finance a new Office of Population Health Equity within the Maine CDC.

Lambrew said the new office came out of conversations with community groups last year as Maine struggled to address disproportionately high COVID-19 rates in some population groups. At the beginning of last summer, for instance, Maine had the nation’s largest racial disparity, with Black residents contracting COVID-19 at rates more than 20 times higher than white residents.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the disparities in our Maine health care system in ways that have been really challenging for residents as well as the state and the providers who serve people,” Lambrew said.

RISING CASES AND INOCULATIONS

Tuesday marked the eighth consecutive day in which new case numbers topped 200 in Maine as many states across the country are once again seeing infection rates rise. The 290 new cases was just below the seven-day average of 292 cases daily, compared to an average of 214 cases for the week ending March 30 and a recent low of 140 in late February.

To date, there have been 52,275 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in Maine since the coronavirus was first detected here in March 2020. At least 746 deaths have been linked to the disease, according to figures from the Maine CDC.

Shah noted that Maine’s positivity rate for testing is now up to 3 percent compared to less than 2 percent several weeks ago. Positive test results have been flowing in at such a fast rate that Maine CDC epidemiologists have struggled to keep pace with their reviews to determine whether each positive test represents a new case or a repeat test of a previously identified case.

But Maine also has among the nation’s highest vaccination rates at a time when eligibility will expand again Wednesday from adults 50 or older to anyone 16 or over.

As of Tuesday morning, 34.5 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents – or 463,662 individuals – had received at least one dose of vaccine, and 23.6 percent, or 316,929 people, had received all of the shots necessary to become fully inoculated. Those figures increase to 41.2 percent and 28.2 percent, respectively, if only Maine residents age 16 or older are included.

Augusta firefighter/paramedic Tim Pomelow administers a shot to Susan Feather during a COVID-19 vaccination event hosted by Augusta Fire & Rescue at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta last month. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Maine ranked fourth among the states – behind New Hampshire, New Mexico and Connecticut – in terms of the percent of the population that had received at least one dose and fifth-highest for the percent who have completed their vaccination regimens, according to tracking by Bloomberg News.

Maine’s vaccine allotment from the federal government is expected to exceed 91,000 doses this week, boosted in part by a 46 percent increase in shipments to retail pharmacies at Walgreens, Walmart/Sam’s Club, Hannaford and Shaw’s. The federal government also plans to ship doses to CVS pharmacies in Maine, as well as to Good Neighbor and MedShoppe, which operate in Aroostook and Androscoggin counties.

‘URGENCY, NOT HESITANCY’

Vaccination rates vary widely across the state, which is an issue that DHHS officials hope to address through the FEMA mobile units and other initiatives in the coming weeks.

For instance, roughly 38 percent of Cumberland County residents have received at least one dose of vaccine but only 25 percent of Somerset County residents have received their first shot. And the disparity is even wider within certain age groups. Roughly 85 percent of those 70 or older in Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties have received all of the shots required to be fully vaccinated, compared with just 65 percent in Androscoggin County and 60 percent in Piscataquis County.

The Maine CDC routinely redirects vaccine doses to different areas of the state in response to both need and demand. Shah noted that vaccine “hesitancy” is a nationwide challenge, including in Maine, but suggested that demand for vaccination appointments was robust headed into Wednesday’s expanded eligibility.

“What we are really seeing overwhelmingly across the state remains urgency, not hesitancy, particularly as we move into different and more age groups,” Shah said.

COVID-19 cases rates are rising in many states across the country, due in part to the growing prevalence of more transmissible variants. In Michigan, for instance, an estimated 70 percent of all new cases involve the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, and the variant accounts for roughly 60 percent of new cases in Florida, The New York Times reported.

To date, the Maine CDC has identified 15 cases of the U.K. variant in this state along with one case of the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil and four cases of B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa. Those figures have not changed since March 26 based on the Maine CDC’s routine analysis of roughly 5 percent of positive case results.

Hospitalization numbers also are ticking upward in Maine after remaining relatively flat for weeks.

As of Tuesday, there were 80 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19, with 32 of those being treated in critical care units and eight connected to ventilators.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.