Health care providers and pharmacies across Maine were scheduling appointments or developing plans Friday to administer booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine following new federal guidance for certain fully vaccinated individuals.

Under guidelines released Friday, millions of people nationwide who received the Pfizer vaccine will now be eligible for third “booster” shots six months after their second dose in order to bolster their protection against COVID-19. Eligible groups include anyone age 65 or older, younger adults with underlying medical conditions as well as individuals at heightened risk because of “occupational or institutional exposure.”

There was some confusion Friday about who falls into the latter category of high-risk exposure, but it clearly includes health care workers as well as people living in homeless shelters or prisons. In an unusual step, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky overruled a scientific advisory panel and endorsed booster shots for high-risk workers.

But health care networks and pharmacy chains in Maine were already gearing up for the booster shots. And state officials said Maine is well-positioned and equipped to offer Pfizer boosters, even as getting first doses into arms remains the top priority because of the higher risk posed by the delta variant to unvaccinated individuals.

“In anticipation of the updated emergency use authorization granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Maine has ensured an ample supply of Pfizer vaccine and that a system is in place to provide booster doses in accordance with the newly released federal guidance,” Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a joint statement. “Boosters provide an added layer of protection for individuals at higher risk from COVID-19, and we encourage those eligible for a booster dose to find a convenient time to get their shot.”

The CVS retail pharmacy chain announced Friday that 17 of  its pharmacies in Maine have already started or will soon offer booster shots to eligible people. A list of locations was not immediately available Friday evening, but people interested in booster shots or first doses can use the company’s scheduling system on CVS.com.

Portland-based InterMed also notified patients Friday that eligible individuals could begin scheduling appointments for booster shots.

Other health networks were still developing plans for the booster shots based on the still-evolving guidance on Friday.

Northern Light Health, which operates Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor as well as a network of hospitals and clinics throughout the state, said the primary focus remains outreach to unvaccinated people.

“We will be providing information in the coming days about how to schedule boosters for those who meet criteria for them,” Northern Light spokesman Andrew Soucier said in a statement. “At this time we do not foresee the need for large scale sites for booster shot delivery but are working on having special clinics within Northern Light Health facilities to administer vaccines in addition to our practices and pharmacies.”

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care provider, planned to begin offering booster shots next week to eligible individuals. Qualified patients can call MaineHealth at (877) 780-7545 to schedule an appointment for a booster.

MaineHealth is also offering – but not requiring – booster shots to members of its health care team who received their second Pfizer shots six or more months ago. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills has required that all health care workers in the state be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1 but has pushed back enforcement of the requirement until Oct. 29.

“By reviewing the data and making this recommendation, the CDC has given us one more way we can mitigate the impact of this deadly pandemic on ourselves and our communities,” Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer of MaineHealth, said in a statement. “We urge those who are eligible to take advantage of this extra measure of protection as we continue to combat COVID-19.”

Individuals with compromised immune systems – such as cancer patients or organ transplant recipients – have been eligible for booster shots for weeks. As of Friday, 10,607 booster shots had been administered in Maine.

But that number is expected to increase significantly in the coming months because, among the more than 390,000 Maine residents age 60 or older who are fully vaccinated, 47 percent received the Pfizer vaccine, according to Maine CDC data.

Maine’s vaccination rate appeared to drop this week because the Maine CDC’s count of second doses had previously included some of the booster shots administered in recent weeks. On Thursday, the agency started breaking out the number of booster shots into a separate category, however, resulting in Maine’s percentage of fully vaccinated residents falling slightly from 65.1 percent Thursday to 64.5 percent Friday.

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said vaccine providers are now required to specify when a shot is a booster, or third shot.

CASES STILL HIGH

The news on booster shots for some Pfizer vaccine recipients comes as the delta variant continues to drive a surge in new infections and hospitalizations across the state.

The Maine CDC reported 714 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday but no additional deaths. Because of a backlog of work at the Maine CDC amid the surge in cases, the 714 cases reported Friday includes new positive test results reported over multiple days but that were reviewed by agency staff Thursday. Maine CDC is bringing on additional personnel to help with the backlog.

Maine’s seven-day average of new cases remained relatively flat at 467 as of Friday, up slightly from an average of 456 two weeks ago but exponentially higher than the few dozen cases being reported daily in June and early July.

Maine’s virus prevalence is slightly below the national average, at 35 cases per 100,000 residents on an average day, compared to 38 nationally, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Maine has the second highest infection rate in the Northeast behind Pennsylvania, which is reporting a daily average of 36 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

Penobscot County continues to experience the highest case numbers in Maine, with 137 new cases reported Friday. The counties with the highest transmission rate over the past seven days are Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset, although all 16 of Maine’s counties are currently experiencing “high” transmission rates under federal criteria. As a result, masking is recommended – but not required – in all indoor, public settings for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

The counties with the highest transmission rates are among those with the lowest vaccination rates.

Overall, Maine continues to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, as well as among the lowest COVID-19 case and death rates. The state Friday reported that 64.5 percent of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, compared to 55 percent nationwide.

NEAR-RECORD HOSPITALIZATIONS

The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals remains at near record levels and well above what the state experience during last winter’s surge. As of Friday, there were 225 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 – just one below Wednesday’s record tally of 226 COVID admissions – 77 of whom were in critical care and 36 connected to ventilators.

Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, the largest hospital serving northern and eastern Maine, averaged 54.6 COVID-19 patients each day for the week ending Thursday, a new record for the hospital.

“EMMC is still quite full, not just with COVID patients but also with other individuals,” Dr. James Jarvis, senior vice president at EMMC and the COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said Thursday. “That’s always our concern that if any of our smaller critical access hospitals had a need to send a patient for a higher level of care, would we continue to have the space for that, and that continues to be a concern of ours.”

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 86,586 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020. At least 1,009 deaths have been linked to the viral disease.

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