AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine hospitals anticipate another surge in demand for COVID-19 vaccines after state officials announced residents aged 60 and older would be next in line for shots, an extension to a greater population than previously anticipated.
Friday’s announcement that Maine would switch to an age-based vaccination system comes as three out of five Mainers aged 70 and up have received at least one vaccine dose while the state’s vaccine allocation is expected to increase and the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is likely to be approved by the federal government this weekend.
Appointments have been easier to come by for many Maine seniors over the past few weeks as supply has increased. But the roughly 75,000 people age 70 and up who have not yet been vaccinated — coupled with about 180,000 newly eligible Mainers — are likely to lead to a surge of demand that exceeds even an increased supply of vaccines.
The rush of appointment seekers could look similar to when Maine first expanded eligibility, said Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response. But he said the Bangor-based hospital system has been preparing for a possible expansion since last week, when public officials said approaching the 70 percent mark of those over 70 receiving their first dose would likely trigger a change in the eligibility.
There have been signs that certain areas of the state may have reached saturation for Mainers over 70 willing to get vaccinated, Jarvis said. He pointed to Aroostook County — where getting the vaccine is easier than most of the state because of the low population’s geographic density around sites — as an example.
“We reached out to the Maine CDC to say we were certainly ready in certain parts of the state [to expand], that we’ve already eclipsed where our supply was actually greater than our demand,” he said.
Preparations have mostly centered on making sure the system’s website was prepared to accommodate new age ranges and able to handle a rush of appointments, Jarvis said. He did not anticipate needing more staff at this point and said the system would not create a wait list for future eligible Mainers, saying it could give people a false sense of security and cause frustration if they do not get contacted immediately.
Northern Light’s website — which briefly crashed amid high traffic when Maine first opened vaccines to residents aged 70 and up — began allowing people in their 60s to set up appointments Friday afternoon, minutes after Mills announced the change in prioritization.
Depending on where they live, Mainers in their 60 may not be able to book appointments right away, as several providers indicated they would continue giving vaccines to those 70 and up first. Hospitals can prioritize based on pre-existing health conditions or other factors, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Friday.
MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital system, will prioritize people 70 and older who have pre-registered in its system, according to spokesperson John Porter. But the hospital system still expects to begin scheduling appointments for Mainers in their 60s next week. MaineHealth is prepared to administer up to 25,000 vaccines per week, Porter said, though it has received only 8,500 the past few weeks as supply remains limited.
Maine is set to receive more than 30,000 doses next week, up 8 percent from this week, as well as nearly 9,000 vaccines through the federal retail pharmacy program. Walmart, which is offering vaccines in Maine under that program, was not yet allowing Mainers under age 70 to book appointments Friday evening.
The state’s allocation of vaccines could further increase with the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was endorsed by federal advisers Friday afternoon. If approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Johnson & Johnson has suggested it could distribute 20 million vaccines before March’s end, which could translate into more than 80,000 vaccines here.
For now, the new prioritization categories came as a “relief” for Stephen Patriquen of Portland, who turns 65 in April. Patriquen knew he would be vaccinated eventually, but having a timeframe brought him peace of mind he had been waiting for since the pandemic began.
Like many, Patriquen said he has been limiting contact with those outside his immediate household, including his sister, a nurse at Maine Medical Center. She has been vaccinated, but he is still wary of interacting with her because of her work with the public.
But that relief was almost tempered by uncertainty for Patriquen on the next steps for getting vaccinated, something he said he had not begun to research. Being eligible, he said, was not the same as knowing definitively when he would be vaccinated.
“[The vaccine] has been a sort of carrot on a stick for a while now,” he said.