MaineHealth is changing its COVID-19 vaccination scheduling system to make it easier for patients to set up  appointments, and will allow walk-in vaccinations at some locations.

State vaccination clinics likely will also soon see the return of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine to Maine after two federal agencies approved ending a halt on its use instituted following reports of blood clots in a small number of women who received it.

“It is vital that we keep our momentum,” said Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth, in a statement. “These vaccines are both safe and highly effective, and right now in Maine, COVID is surging among the unvaccinated. For the first time, we are seeing that younger people are being impacted in greater numbers than older individuals.”

MaineHealth, which has given more than 280,000 doses of  COVID vaccine, is the state’s largest health care network and the parent company of Maine Medical Center. It operates mass vaccination clinics at Scarborough Downs and the former Marshalls department store in Sanford, among many other immunization locations.

The network switched Friday from a pre-registration system, in which people register and wait for a call back from MaineHealth, to direct registration for appointments online or by phone.

To register, go to vaccine.mainehealth.org or call 877-780-7545.

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The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration Friday officially lifted the 11-day pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices earlier Friday recommended resuming use of the J&J vaccine with a new warning on its label saying that the benefits of getting the vaccine outweigh the risks in individuals age 18 and older.

In a joint statement, the agencies said that the blood clot risk is “very low” and they “have confidence that this vaccine is safe and effective in preventing COVID-19.”

“I continue to be encouraged by the growing body of real-world evidence that the authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and they protect people from disease, hospitalization, and death,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky. “I urge anyone with questions about the COVID-19 vaccines to speak with their healthcare provider or local public health department.”

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah also issued a joint statement saying that Maine “recommends that providers resume use of the J&J vaccine effective immediately.”

“This thorough scientific investigation demonstrates the strength of the U.S. vaccine safety system,” the statement said. “We stand ready to work with providers to resume use of the J&J vaccine as part of our broader effort to vaccinate Maine people quickly and equitably.”

Use of the J&J vaccine, which can be given in a single shot and doesn’t require cold storage, was put on hold April 13 after reports that a small number of women had developed blood clots. As of Friday, there were 15 cases, out of more than 8 million doses given of the vaccine. All of them were in women, and all but two are under the age of 50. Three have died, and another seven have been hospitalized.

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According to the Maine CDC, the state has about 15,000 doses of J&J vaccine that can be administered by Maine providers now that the pause has been lifted. A spokesman said Maine will be ordering more doses as soon as the federal CDC makes them available.

The White House said Friday that 9 million Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses would be ready to ship to states.

Shah also weighed in on the new development on social media, tweeting that the CDC advisory panel had made “the right decision” and that their discussion was “thoughtful, robust, and data-driven.”

It was also, he added, “one of the finest examples of transparent and clear analysis/decision making around a complex policy issue I have seen. It is what we should expect of our vaccine safety system. It should also give us confidence that signals are investigated fully and seriously.”

Health experts in the U.S. have largely agreed that a prolonged pause in use of the J&J vaccine could be harmful. Because of its versatility, doses were being steered to mobile clinics, retail pharmacies and hard-to-reach areas and were thought to be key to reaching vulnerable and homebound populations.

Before the pause in J&J vaccine was lifted, Boomsma said the state’s vaccine supply is now better matched to demand, which is why MaineHealth is opening up new options for scheduling appointments.

Appointments are open to those 16 and older. Those age 16 and 17 can only obtain vaccinations at MaineHealth locations in Scarborough, Westbrook and Brunswick, which offer the Pfizer vaccine, the only one approved for use in 16- and 17-year-olds. As minors, these patients must also receive permission from a parent or guardian to receive the Pfizer shot.

MaineHealth launched a walk-in-clinic at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington this week. More walk-in patients will be accepted Monday through Friday of next week, from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for those 18 and older. Walk-in clinics at other sites are expected to open soon.

“Our goal is to make getting the vaccine as easy as possible,” Boomsma said in a statement. “It takes less than five minutes to schedule a vaccination appointment using the online self-service scheduling option. If Maine people step up and get vaccinated in the coming weeks, we can finally start to put this pandemic behind us.”

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