People line up outside the vaccine clinic at the Portland Expo before it opened Tuesday morning. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Shipments of COVID-19 vaccine through the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to remain flat next week even as vaccination clinics expand hours and walk-in opportunities to draw young and working Mainers.

But hospitalization figures continue to trend upward in Maine, likely driven in part by a growing prevalence of more transmissible variants of the coronavirus.

Vaccine distribution data posted by the federal government Wednesday afternoon show that the Maine CDC is slated to receive 39,360 doses next week, or a drop of 300 doses. Although that’s a decline of less than 1 percent, Maine will receive 700 fewer doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine used in a federally run mobile clinic and to inoculate homebound individuals. That drop will be partially offset by an increase of 400 doses of Moderna vaccine.

Retail pharmacy chains, such as Walgreens or those run by supermarkets, as well as federally qualified health centers in Maine receive separate vaccine shipments from the federal government. Those figures will not be available until this weekend, at the earliest, but dose distributions to pharmacies in Maine have increased from 11,820 in mid-April to 14,800 this week.

The vaccine landscape is shifting in Maine and nationally as demand for the once hard-to-find shots begins to sag and health officials work harder to target the roughly half of the population that has yet receive a dose. In Maine, clinics are shifting to no-appointment, walk-in vaccinations and offering evening or weekend hours.

Mercy Hospital in Portland, for instance, announced Wednesday that Northern Light Pharmacy on the hospital’s campus will begin offering walk-in vaccinations on Thursday between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Beginning next week, Northern Light Health’s clinic at the Portland Expo will transition to offering walk-in vaccinations only on Wednesdays and Friday.

“This change is being made to reflect the changes in demand for vaccinations overall and volumes at the Expo clinic, which was designed to be a mass vaccination site,” Northern Light Mercy Hospital said in a statement. “To date, the clinic at the Expo has provided over 35,000 vaccine doses. Northern Light Mercy Hospital remains committed to working with the state and local communities as the vaccination process moves forward, including reaching out directly to schools to provide vaccinations to eligible students.”

In the Androscoggin County town of Turner, a mobile unit operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in partnership with the Maine CDC vaccinated 165 people on Wednesday.

The mobile vaccination unit will be staged at Turner’s Boofy Quimby Field on Thursday and Friday.

Maine continues to vaccinate residents at a faster pace than all but a handful of states, although that pace has slowed considerably in recent weeks.

Roughly 48 percent of all Maine residents had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Tuesday evening and 40 percent had received the shots necessary to achieve full inoculation against COVID-19. Those figures rise to 57 percent and 48 percent, respectively, when zeroing in on the 1.1 million residents who are 16 or older and are therefore eligible for vaccination.

New England states have the highest vaccination rates in the country. Maine currently ranks first in the nation in terms of the segment of the population that is fully vaccinated and fifth behind New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut for the percent of residents that have received at least one shot.

While Maine’s COVID-19 case count remains elevated, the seven-day average has been trending downward.

On Wednesday, the Maine CDC reported 348 new cases of COVID-19 along with one additional death, identified as a woman in her 60s from Androscoggin County. Daily cases numbers have fluctuated significantly in recent days but the seven-day, rolling average stood at 317. The seven-day average was 327 one week earlier and hit a springtime peak of 480 cases for the week ending April 18.

Individuals under 40 accounted for more than 70 percent of the new cases reported Wednesday, a statistic attributable in part to high vaccination rates among older Mainers but also to rising infection rates driven up by more transmissible variants. As of Tuesday, the Maine CDC had detected 153 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom as well as 22 cases of the P.1 variant from Brazil and three cases of the South African B.1.351 variant.

All three of those variants have been shown to be more easily transmissible and could lead to more severe cases of COVID-19. At the same time, the three vaccines now being offered in the United States – the two-shot vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and the single-shot J&J vaccine – have been shown to be effective at reducing the likelihood of infection or severe illness.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, speaking during a briefing Tuesday, said the variants are “a concern” that raise many questions. But he said vaccination as well as other public  health measures will help to slow their spread in Maine.

“The concern that is in front of us is not so much preventing variants from coming in from other states but, rather, preventing the spread of the variants that are already here,” Shah said. “The main concern for variants is tamping down on any transmission on the ones that are already here. The best way to do that is for as many people to be vaccinated because by being vaccinated, you prevent yourself from being used as a vector that could inadvertently transmit the virus or the variant to somebody else.”

There were 132 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 – the most since early-February – and 51 of those individuals were in critical care, with 24 connected to ventilators. Hospitalization figures have been trending upward for several weeks after peaking at more than 200 early in January and then falling to a steady rate of 60 to 70 hospitalizations daily earlier this spring.

With the death reported Wednesday, there have been a total of 791 deaths linked to COVID-19 in Maine since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020. The Maine CDC has tracked 62,857 confirmed or probable cases of the disease since the pandemic began.

Nationally, the U.S. CDC released a new scientific paper on Wednesday projecting that COVID-19’s death toll will fall sharply by the end of July based on a review by six research groups. But the paper also warned those decreases could be tempered – leading to hundreds of thousands cases and thousands of deaths weekly – if people do not get vaccinated and take precautions such as wearing a mask or physically distancing.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. CDC, said during a briefing Wednesday that “models once projecting really grim news now offer reasons to be quite hopeful for what the summer may bring.” But Walensky cautioned that variants put some areas at risk of seeing increases in cases and undermining the progress.

“More specifically, we need to keep vaccinating people,” Walensky said. “But we all need to keep practicing certain prevention interventions to help us get to the predicted good outcomes. Although we are seeing progress in terms of decreased cases, hospitalizations and deaths, variants are a wildcard that could reverse this progress we have made and could set us back.”

As a result of slowing demand for vaccine, Shah announced on Tuesday that all individuals 16 or older, regardless of their state of residence, are now eligible for vaccination in Maine. The shift is aimed at increasing access to vaccines for college students, seasonal residents and tourists who are not fully vaccinated as well as opening up additional options as demand for shots among Mainers slackens.

“This change is not being made because people don’t want the vaccine,” Shah said. “Rather, it’s a recognition of the ever-evolving vaccination landscape. For example, with college students coming back home, we want to make it as easy as possible for them to get their first shot or their second shot. We’ve also heard from vaccination sites that removing the residency requirement will make it even easier and quicker for them to administer doses.

However, state health officials remain concerned about lower vaccination rates – and high new coronavirus infection rates – among younger individuals. Just 40 percent of Maine residents between 16 and 39 had received their first shot of vaccine as of Tuesday evening and 22 percent had received either both shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-shot of Johnson & Johnson. Those figures were 53 percent and 43 percent, respectively, for residents between 40 and 59.

In an effort to reach more people, many clinics around the state have begun offering vaccinations without an appointment and are now offering weekend or evening hours. Vaccination against COVID-19 is free to anyone, regardless of whether they have health insurance.

For a list of vaccination clinics and contact information for those sites around the state, go to maine.gov/covid19/vaccines/vaccination-sites or call the state’s Community Vaccination Line at 888-445-4111.

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