Kayla Mitchell, a registered nurse at Maine Medical Center, was the first Mainer to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Medical Center

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COVID-19 vaccinations have begun arriving in Maine. The speed at which vaccines against the coronavirus have been developed, tested and are being distributed is an amazing accomplishment.

For most people, however, this news doesn’t change much, in the short term. The coronavirus is still spreading rapidly, and uncontrolled, through our communities. So, that means we still need to wear masks, avoid large gatherings (especially indoors) and stay at least six feet apart from one another outside of our household.

If we still have to take so many precautions, some may wonder why there is so much excitement about the vaccine.

The short answer is that vaccines give medical personnel a powerful tool to slow the spread of COVID-19. To date, health professionals have been able to treat coronavirus, but they have not had a medical way to prevent people from catching it.

So, development and distribution of the vaccines is a game changer. But the game will change slowly for most Americans. That’s because getting the vaccine to hundreds of millions of Americans is a difficult and time consuming task.

Frontline medical workers are the top priority. On Monday, Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York was the first American to get the vaccine outside of a clinical trial.

“I have no fear,” Linday told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I trust the science. My profession is deeply rooted in science. I trust science. What I don’t trust is getting COVID-19, because I don’t know how it will affect me and the people around me that I could potentially transfer the virus to.”

The first person in Maine to get the vaccine following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization was Kayla Mitchell, a registered nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland who has been treating COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit.

“I’m excited to be able to be a part of the solution and make the community a safer place at this critical moment,” Mitchell said after receiving the vaccine on Tuesday. “I’ve watched people suffer with this illness. I trust the science, and I trust that this is a solution.”

After health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities are the next priority. Long-term care facilities, in Maine and around the country, have been hard hit by the pandemic. About 40 percent of the COVID-related deaths in the U.S. have been in nursing homes.

Next on the priority list of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are workers in essential industries, people at high risk of contracting COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions and those over 65.

The New York Times has a simple online tool to estimate your place in line for the vaccine. For most Americans it will be months before they are able to receive the inoculation.

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the country was on track to have enough doses to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of this year. The U.S. is expected to have 50 million doses by the end of January and 100 million by the end of March, he said.

“We remain confident that across our portfolio of multiple vaccines, we will have enough doses for any American who wants a vaccine by the second quarter of 2021,” Azar said.

A vaccine created by Pfizer and BioNTech was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration late last week and distribution of it began this week. Another vaccine, created by Moderna, is expected to be approved this week, with distribution to start soon after. Both vaccines require two shots, about three weeks apart. Vaccination should be free as the federal government has said it will cover the costs.

The vaccine protects those who get it from developing COVID-19. It is not yet known if those who are inoculated may still carry the virus, and therefore be able to infect others.

The arrival of coronavirus vaccines is a big turning point in the fight against COVID-19. Completing that turn will still take many months. In the meantime, we must all continue to protect ourselves and others from the illness. For those not at the front of the vaccine line, wearing a mask, frequently washing your hands and avoiding sustained in-person contact and interactions with others remains the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...