Michael Margolies’ job as a delivery driver often has him on the road. But the 24-year-old from Portland found himself on an unusual four-hour round trip to Bangor early Thursday morning for his first COVID-19 vaccine.
He did not want to waste time hunting for a shot after Gov. Janet Mills opened vaccine eligibility to all Mainers over 16 last week. He browsed for two hours on Northern Light Health’s website before he got an appointment at the Cross Insurance Center.
“I’m fortunate enough to have the time and the flexible-enough schedule where I can sit for two hours in the morning and go through dropdown menus,” Margolies said. “But it goes fast. I got lucky.”
Despite vaccination clinics being concentrated in six southern counties, many headed north last week in a reversal of normal Maine health care travel patterns. Northern Light said it does not keep data on the residency of every person vaccinated, but reporters found many at the Bangor site this week and others answered a Bangor Daily News survey. Reasons could include more enthusiasm in southern Maine and Northern Light’s transparent online appointment system.
Southern counties are not uniformly leading the vaccine race. Lincoln is leading with 45 percent of residents getting at least one shot. Knox is second while Cumberland has seen 42 percent receive at least one shot. Right behind it is Hancock County, according to state data.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said it was hard to draw conclusions from the data because it varies so much across counties. But demand is a challenge in rural areas, he said, pointing in particular to Androscoggin County, where 32 percent of people have had their first shot.
“There’s a lot more demand for vaccines than there are vaccines,” Shah said. “On one level, we want to encourage that. We want folks to make sure they are angling to get their vaccine. I’m hoping as we get more vaccines, we can satisfy that demand.”
Demand has typically surged as Maine has opened up eligibility. Northern Light, which serves primarily northern and eastern Maine and also has a location in Portland, saw thousands waiting in a virtual line for appointments on Tuesday. MaineHealth, which covers parts of southern and western Maine and maintains a pre-registration list, reporting similarly massive demand.
It is not unusual for people to travel to get shots nationally, sometimes highlighting disparities. In Maryland, the majority of people getting vaccinated at a mass site at Six Flags amusement park are from a wealthier county, with relatively few locals getting shots. A rush of Minnesota residents into North Dakota caused a pharmacy chain to limit shots to residents only.
The shift to open eligibility in Maine came after health officials saw appointments going unfilled, risking wasted doses. Shah said the state watches where appointments get filled to determine where to send shots. He said a noticeable sustained demand for shots in lagging Androscoggin County means the area will get an additional tray of Pfizer vaccines.
MaineHealth’s waitlist of 40,000 is mostly populated by York or Cumberland County residents, said Joan Boomsma, the chief medical officer. She said the hospital has been advocating for a population-based distribution approach as the quickest way to get shots into arms.
“We’ve definitely heard of people driving elsewhere to get vaccinated, and that’s fine,” she said. “But our philosophy is we like to see people get care close to home.”
John Gale, a University of Southern Maine rural health professor and president of the National Rural Health Association, noted that it is “unusual” to see people traveling north for health care, as the more populated regions of the state tend to offer more comprehensive services.
He said the apparent trend could be a side effect of the state’s slow rollout of a centralized registration system that leaves people jockeying for spots. It could also be an initial indicator of rural hesitancy, something that could affect widespread immunity in the long run.
“No one wants to make that assumption and not provide resources to folks in those areas,” he said.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found rural residents are warier of getting vaccinated, with only 30 percent of rural residents nationally planning to get a shot as soon as possible, compared to 50 percent of urban and suburban residents.
Maine is dedicating resources to getting vaccines to underserved areas, including a mobile clinic beginning next week in Oxford that aims to serve some of the state’s poorest regions, based on federal indicators like poverty and lacking access to reliable transportation.
Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light’s COVID-19 response, said the bulk of the system’s doses have been kept north of Augusta, where most of the Bangor-based provider’s resources are. He said the rapid shifting eligibility has caused fluctuations in interest. It is not uncommon to see people from “all over the state” arrive for appointments, he said.
At one point, Northern Light began to see demand slow down in northern Maine. Eligibility changed and slots filled up. At times, Northern Light has sent vaccines to other places, including York Hospital and York County long-term care facilities when local need was not as great.
Not everyone may be willing to travel such long distances. Tim Lambert, 43, said he lives a “stone’s throw” from MaineHealth’s mass vaccine site at the former Scarborough Downs racetrack. But he and his wife were not able to find an appointment locally this week.
He tried to book an appointment through Intermed, but it was gone by the time he finished the process. He was hoping on Wednesday to hear from one of the various waitlists he was on.
“It’s like trying to get tickets to a Billy Joel concert,” he said.
BDN writer Eesha Pendharkar contributed to this report.