A mobile vaccination unit designed to bring COVID-19 shots to people in underserved rural areas of Maine swung into action Monday, making its first stop in the Oxford Casino parking lot.

Gov. Janet Mills was on hand for the unit’s debut and said it is intended to reach communities where people may be having difficulty accessing vaccines.

“This is the biggest logistical action the state and the nation has undertaken in generations,” Mills said.

The mobile unit is a partnership between the Mills administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In addition to Mills, FEMA Regional Administrator Paul Ford, Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and other officials attended the unit’s launch.

The FEMA mobile units – there are 30 nationwide so far – are entirely paid for by the federal government, said Patrick Boland, a FEMA spokesman, although the cost of operating them is still being determined.

For those driving into the Oxford Casino parking lot on Monday, a sign pointing to the right led to the FEMA vaccination site, while taking a left led to the casino’s general parking area. The nondescript white trailer where the shots were given was smaller than a double-wide mobile home and welcomed those seeking shots with signs that read “Line 1” and “Line 2.”

The unit included the trailer with attached tents where people would get their shots and waiting areas delineated by orange construction cones. After receiving a vaccination, patients waited in their vehicles in an adjacent parking area for 15 minutes to make sure they had no allergic reactions to the vaccine.

The unit will be at the Oxford Casino through Friday, giving vaccinations by appointment only. It then will move to 10 other locations throughout the state: Windham, Biddeford, Fryeburg, Turner, Old Town, Calais, Waterville, Milbridge, Madawaska and Auburn. To make an appointment for a vaccination, call 888-445-4111.

The mobile unit will be able to vaccinate 250 people per day, using the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The J&J vaccine does not have to be kept in ultra-cold storage like the other two vaccines in use – Pfizer and Moderna – making it a good choice for mobile immunization efforts, officials say.

Also, since it requires only one dose, rather than the two doses needed for Pfizer and Moderna, no follow-up appointments are needed, which is another advantage when running a mobile unit in rural areas.

However, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to be in short supply this week and possibly for the next few weeks.

This week, 2,200 of the 2,500 available Johnson & Johnson doses in the allocation to the state vaccination program were set aside for the mobile vaccination clinic. Last week, Maine had 20,600 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the state program, and those doses were sent to independent pharmacies, rural hospitals, independent family physicians, pop-up clinics run by local public safety departments and others. But for this week, at least, the Johnson & Johnson doses dried up.

Johnson & Johnson doses sent to retail pharmacies, including Walmart, Walgreens, Hannaford and Shaw’s, plummeted from 20,600 last week to 2,600 this week. In total, all COVID-19 vaccine doses shipped to Maine plunged from about 91,000 last week to about 54,000 this week, entirely caused by the reduced supplies of J&J vaccine.

Ford said that states will need to use doses from the state program for the mobile vaccination units, and that the federal government did not have plans to boost the mobile units with extra vaccine supplies. The Maine mobile unit is the second to start up in New England, following one that recently began inoculating people in Connecticut.

There was almost no waiting Monday morning as people trickled in to get their shots. About 150 people were expected to immunized Monday, ramping up to 200 on Tuesday and 250 per day the rest of the week.

Elizabeth Olsen, the Oxford town clerk, got her shot at the mobile unit Monday morning. Olsen said she was hesitant to get the vaccine, and even canceled a previous appointment, because she has underlying health conditions and was worried about side effects.

But when she saw the mobile unit was coming to the Oxford Casino parking lot, Olsen decided the benefits of the vaccine were greater than the potential risks. The vaccines were extensively tested and proven to be safe and effective, and in real-world experience have already saved lives and shown to be extremely effective at preventing COVID-19.

“It was so easy and convenient and close to home,” Olsen said. “They showed you where to go, where to park your car, what to do.”

Mills said that although Johnson & Johnson supplies will be constricted the next two weeks, the state expects doses to rebound in late April. The mobile unit is slated to operate through June 12, although its use could be extended.

The mobile sites are set up for cold storage for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but Mills said they prefer to use the one-shot Johnson & Johnson because it would be logistically more difficult to return to locations three to four weeks later for second doses.

Jack Sours, Oxford Casino’s general manager, said the casino gave “an immediate yes” when it was asked if it would allow FEMA and the state to use the site for a mobile vaccination clinic. He said the casino is glad to help in the fight against the virus.

The unit is slated to hold similar events in 10 other towns and cities in Maine over the next two months: April 18-22 in Windham, April 24-28 in Biddeford, April 30 – May 3 in Fryeburg, May 5-7 in Turner, May 9-12 in Waterville, May 14-17 in Old Town, May 19-22 in Milbridge, May 24-27 in Calais, May 29 – June 2 in Madawaska and June 9-12 Auburn.

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.