The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
In January, we described the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as “too slow to be effective.” What a difference a few months make, at least for some people.
Starting Wednesday, all Maine people ages 16 and up will be eligible to receive a vaccine. This more universal eligibility is happening nearly two weeks sooner than planned, and is the most recent of several accelerations in Maine’s COVID vaccination timeline.
Nationally, roughly 17 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. That number stands around 20 percent here in Maine. This certainly isn’t “mission accomplished” by any means, but the eligibility expansion is good news. With appointments going unfilled in parts of the state and the vaccine supply picking up, opening up the process to more people was the logical and appropriate step for the state to take.
It’s our non-medical opinion that, no matter which of the vaccines available to them, all Mainers ages 16 and up should be exploring their options to get vaccinated. That’s especially true here in Bangor and the surrounding areas, where there have been available appointments through Northern Light Health. We want to see as many people as possible, as fast as possible, look to help protect themselves, their loved ones and everyone else in their communities from COVID-19.
As the important vaccination work continues, it is critical that Mainers with medical conditions or disabilities that put them at high risk from COVID-19 don’t get lost in the massive shuffle of universal vaccine eligibility.
The Mills administration was convincing when it based the secondary rollout of vaccines on data showing age as a strong predictor for serious COVID-19 illness or death, and we’re not here to question that decision. But there’s also little question that this decision affected people with conditions like cancer, diabetes, chronic lung conditions, Down syndrome and others. We don’t blame these Mainers and their families for feeling left behind in the process, and share their concern about getting overshadowed when eligibility widens Wednesday.
“If there is not a strong way to prioritize then they will get lost in this shuffle,” Deb Dunlap, whose son has Down syndrome, told News Center Maine.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has stressed that it is working with families, providers and advocates to set up specialty vaccination clinics for people with disabilities. This kind of collaborative problem solving needs to continue.
“Maine continues to direct providers to prioritize vaccination of those most at risk of harm from COVID-19 as well as those who may face barriers to vaccination within each age group. This includes but is not limited to those with medical conditions or disabilities that put them at risk, older Mainers who have not yet been vaccinated, and those who live in marginalized, medically-underserved, and remote communities, including racial and ethnic minority groups, sexual and gender minority groups, tribal communities, or individuals living with a disability who fall within the age eligibility,” DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell told the BDN last Wednesday. Similar language was used Thursday when announcing expanded eligibility.
“This flexibility includes prioritizing age-eligible individuals within these groups and providing non-age-eligible individuals with extra doses that would otherwise go unused,” Farwell said last Wednesday. “Accordingly, we have allocated doses to cancer centers, dialysis centers, FQHCs, and other providers that serve at-risk populations.”
This is positive, but it also doesn’t specifically require prioritizing vaccines for Mainers with high-risk medical conditions or disabilities.
That’s not to say that providers aren’t already working on or considering ways to prioritize them in outreach efforts. Dr. James Jarvis, who leads the COVID-19 response at Northern Light, told the BDN his organization is working to identify the high-risk people among existing patients and then reach out to them to provide vaccine information. Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the chief health improvement officer at Maine Health, said her organization has been focusing patient outreach more to older people so far, but that it can be expanded to younger patients with medical conditions that make them high risk. Mills is the governor’s sister.
Kim Moody, executive director of Disability Rights Maine, said that having more vaccines available for more people “can’t be anything but a good thing,” but also hoped that as part of that expansion, people with high-risk conditions who have been living particularly home-bound, isolated lives this past year will be able to access vaccines as of this Wednesday. We strongly share that hope. Eligibility is one thing, accessibility is another.
We also share Jarvis’ emphasis that people don’t need to limit where they get vaccinated to where they usually get health care. Northern Light patients can get vaccinated at a Maine Health site, for example, and vice-versa. “I just want every Mainer to get vaccinated,” Jarvis emphasized.
As that process continues to accelerate, we urge the state and vaccine providers to leave no stone unturned in looking for ways to get more shots out faster to vulnerable people and those with high-risk medical conditions and disabilities.