Forest Weston receives the first shot given at a newly opened COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Auburn, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Citing unfilled appointments, the state said Mainers age 16 and older will be eligible for coronavirus vaccines on April 19, moving up the state’s timeline by roughly two weeks and opening up doses to 483,000 more people on that day alone.

The Friday move from Gov. Janet Mills came just after the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Vermont said they would open up vaccines to that age category on the same day. States are expanding eligibility further as they expect a surge of doses next month from the federal government. In Maine, health providers will have to ramp up to handle increased demand, which could require longer hours and more drive-thru clinics.

Mills also announced that Mainers over 50 will be able to be vaccinated starting next Tuesday, just over a week before they were originally expected to be eligible for vaccinations on April 1 under the state’s age-based plan. That will open up eligibility for another 165,000 people. The plan does not take underlying conditions into account, breaking from virtually all other states.

The move was made partially due to many available appointments for currently eligible people — mostly those in their 60s and teachers and childcare workers — going unfilled, said Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention during a Friday press conference. 

“We started hearing in the last day or so that a few slots were starting to go unfilled,” Shah said. “That doesn’t work for us.”

Shah did not tie unfilled slots to hesitancy, saying those middle-aged people may not be able to book appointments immediately due to work commitments. He was confident they will be able to get a vaccine in coming weeks, saying he was “encouraged” by federal promises of an increase in doses and provider indications that they could ramp up distribution. Providers are allowed to prioritize vaccinations within age groups based on health risks. No vaccines are yet approved in the U.S. for kids under 16. 

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said some people may still experience challenges in booking appointments. She said the state expects to use more of its COVID-19 volunteer workforce as well as open up new avenues of vaccinations and more appointment slots to handle the increase.

Expanded options may be needed to reach certain rural parts of the population. Maine has fully vaccinated nearly 16 percent of its population to date, with Somerset, Oxford and Franklin counties all seeing under 12 percent of their populations receiving both doses or a one-shot option, according to state data.

Vaccine allocations have been partially buoyed by the emergency approval of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, even though allocations have yet to meet their promised demand. New COVID-19 cases have also been increasing in the state, despite the sped-up vaccine rollout.

Only one other state — Alaska — is offering shots to everyone 16 and older now. More than a dozen other states are offering them to people 16 and older who have underlying conditions making them vulnerable to the virus, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. New Hampshire will open vaccines to people 16 and older within weeks, the Associated Press reported. 

Maine has been steadily loosening its eligibility restrictions in recent weeks. The state’s previous timetable for the general public to be vaccinated was May 1 after President Joe Biden ordered states to speed up their timelines. It replaced a program that weighed health conditions and employment and switched to an age-based system in late February.