Sitting in her wheelchair outside in the cold, Kathleen Kuefler of Portland waited in a long line to get her COVID-19 booster shot.

She was among a wave of people who turned out Saturday for a walk-in community vaccine clinic offered by Local Roots Health Care of Kennebunk in Portland’s historic Mechanics Hall building. One hour into the clinic, a line of people snaked from the building’s Congress Street entrance, rounded the corner and extended down Casco Street despite wet, freezing weather.

Kuefler was there so she would not be one of the growing number COVID-19 cases in Maine. On Saturday, state health officials reported 1,018 new cases and two additional deaths. That brings the total number of Maine cases since the pandemic began to 129,997, and the number of deaths to 1,367, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The state reported Saturday that 377 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, with 60 of those patients on ventilators.

Saturday’s walk-in clinic was a big help to Kuefler, who doesn’t use a computer and was having a hard time getting a vaccine appointment.

“I’m crippled in my right hand.” she said. “I can’t text. I had a friend who was trying to get me into CVS, but we couldn’t. I heard about this on TV the other day,” and decided to show up. “I hope they have an elevator in there,” she said of the historic, four-story Mechanics Hall building. (It does.)

People wait in line inside Mechanics Hall during the community vaccination clinic Saturday in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Kuefler said she’s following doctors’ advice of getting vaccinated and masking up. “I think the people are stupid not to get the vaccine,” she said. If they get COVID-19, “it’s their fault.”

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Also in line was John Hale of Falmouth to get his booster. He, too, had trouble getting an appointment.

“I had an appointment, but Walmart called me the day I was supposed to go to Old Orchard Beach. They said something was wrong” and had to cancel. He found another appointment, but would have to drive to Auburn later this month. Then he learned about Saturday’s walk-in clinic. He said he’s concerned about all the rising COVID-19 cases and hospitals being overwhelmed.

“I watch the news, the numbers are going up,” he said. “It sounds dangerous. I don’t want to get it, and I certainly don’t want to pass it onto anybody else. If you can’t help anybody, don’t hurt anybody.”

To aid the state’s largest hospital, a contingent of federal medical workers arrived at Maine Medical Center Saturday afternoon. Fifteen medical professionals from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services arrived to help manage the surge of patients the hospital is experiencing due to COVID-19, the hospital announced in a press release.

The team from the federal Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System came at the request of the state government and in collaboration with FEMA. It includes physicians, advanced health care practitioners, nurses, paramedics, plus safety, logistics and administrative support specialists. For the next two weeks, they are expected to provide direct patient care in a new non-COVID, acute care unit, allowing Maine Medical professionals to provide 11 additional beds for adult patients.

People wait in line for the the community vaccination clinic Saturday at Mechanics Hall in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“This team allows MMC to admit more patients from our crowded Emergency Department,” said Joel Botler, M.D., the hospital’s chief medical officer, in the release. “While there is no single solution that will alleviate our current capacity challenge, this team will make a significant difference to our team and our patients.”

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Maine Medical Center ran out of critical care beds at least once last week and was forced to refer emergency patients to other hospitals. MMC closed six more operating rooms this week – in addition to six that had already been closed – to free up doctors and nurses to care for patients with COVID-19 and other critical illnesses. Last week 70 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the MaineHealth system were unvaccinated, the hospital said.

WALK-IN CONVENIENCE

Mechanics’ Hall Executive Director Annie Leahy said her charitable organization noticed other businesses holding walk-in clinics, including the Little Woodford coffee shop and Chaval restaurant in Portland.  She called the coffee shop owner, Andrew Zarro, and asked how he arranged the clinic. He put her in touch with Local Roots whose nurse practitioner Kyle Holmquist agreed to administer shots on Saturday.

The large, historic Mechanics’ Hall building, complete with a fourth-story ballroom, has good space for a clinic, Leahy said, noting that windows were open and fans were turning to improve ventilation and safety. “This is really just us responding to a tremendous need in our community.”

Kim Farrar of Gorham receives a vaccination during the community clinic Saturday at Mechanics Hall in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

People have had trouble getting booster appointments not due to a lack of vaccine supply, she said, “it’s a lack of health care workers.”

A case in point: The first person in line at Saturday’s clinic was there at 10 a.m., in the freezing rain, two hours before it opened, Leahy said. “He drove from Naples,” she said. He had an appointment at a local pharmacy and they canceled it. That’s what we’re seeing. It’s not the pharmacy’s fault. They’re struggling for staff. ”

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On the third floor of the building, Holmquist administered shots; people had a choice of Moderna, Pfizer or J&J.  He said local, walk-in clinics “are terrific because they provide easy access to health care for people who work and live nearby.”

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, one hour after the clinic was supposed to close, shots were still being administered, said Mechanics’ Hall program coordinator Lauren Stockless. “We will probably give out about 300 shots,” she said.

There’ll be another walk-in vaccine clinic at the Chaval Restaurant,  58 Pine St., Portland, from 11 to 1 on Sunday.

Northern Light is also holding a series of “booster blitz” vaccine clinics at the former Pier 1 building at 368 Maine Mall Road throughout next week.

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