A first round of nearly 13,000 coronavirus vaccines began arriving in Maine on Monday, with hospitals in Bangor and Portland receiving their shares and planning to immunize workers by Wednesday as part of a rapid ramp-up.

Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and its affiliate in Portland, Northern Light Mercy Hospital, received 975 doses each on Monday morning. The hospitals expect to prioritize staff who treat coronavirus patients or may be exposed to the virus during their work. Meanwhile, residents at long-term care facilities may have to wait until next week to get inoculated.

Prioritized staff could include anyone from nurses to dieticians to housekeeping staff, according to Dr. James Jarvis, who is helping lead the pandemic response for the hospitals’ parent group, Northern Light Health. Another of their affiliates, Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, is expected to receive 215 initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine within the next day or two.

“We’re not prioritizing by anything other than those who come into contact with COVID-19,” Jarvis said. 

Now that the first shipment of Pfizer doses has arrived, they will need to be thawed and prepared for injection, then administered within “a very short time,” Jarvis said. 

While Jarvis said he is “delighted” by the arrival of the first vaccine doses, he also noted that the hospital system is now regularly treating significant numbers of coronavirus patients, and he warned that staff would continue needing to wear protective gear including face masks and shields for the foreseeable future. 

The hospitals plan to carefully schedule the vaccinations for their workers to keep close track of who has already been inoculated and also to ensure that the workers come back at the appropriate time for the second doses that are required to complete the Pfizer vaccine, according to Jarvis. 

They expect to receive the same number of doses next week, which would allow them to finish the process for the first round of Pfizer vaccine recipients. The second dose is to be administered three weeks after the first.

Paul Bolin, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Northern Light, said the initial round of Pfizer doses will be enough to start the vaccine process for all staff at EMMC, Mercy and A.R. Gould who treat coronavirus-infected patients.  

Northern Light’s other hospitals in communities such as Ellsworth and Dover-Foxcroft are slated to start receiving shipments of another coronavirus vaccine from the company Moderna beginning next week, assuming it also receives emergency authorization from the FDA, which the Pfizer vaccine received on Friday. The Moderna vaccine must also be administered in two doses, spaced four weeks apart.

Because the Pfizer vaccine must be stored at extremely cold temperatures, its initial shipments have been directed to Maine hospitals that have the ability to store it in ultra cold freezers. The Moderna vaccine does not need to be stored at those exceptionally cold temperatures, which means more of the state’s hospitals will have the ability to provide it to their workers.  

After Northern Light Health medical providers were able to review the research behind the Pfizer vaccine when it received emergency approval on Friday, “we feel confident this vaccine is both safe and effective in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Jarvis said. 

Another 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to arrive tomorrow, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Monday. The lion’s share of the first round of vaccines, intended to be administered to long-term care facility patients, are not in the state yet. Those will go directly to pharmacy companies — CVS and Walgreens — that will be in charge of administering the vaccines.

That separate process is almost as complicated as scheduling hospital staff vaccinations. Shah said the CDC has to partner with the companies to schedule visits to long-term care facilities, educate people to obtain informed consent for administering the vaccine and set up the clinics, a process he said takes about two weeks.

Richard Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, an advocacy group for long-term care facilities, said it was not clear yet which places would get the vaccines first. Those details will likely need to be worked out “facility by facility.” More than 40 long-term care facilities have seen virus outbreaks since the start of the pandemic in March.

“This is moving really quickly for the size and the scope of the operation,” he said.

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

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