News Feature

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Originally published in Castine Patriot, February 11, 2021 and Island Ad-Vantages, February 11, 2021 and The Weekly Packet, February 11, 2021
Walmart to vaccinate against COVID-19
Joins hospitals, Cross Center in offering vaccine

COVID-19 Local Updates Fall/Winter 2020
Click here to see the full COVID-19 Local Updates Fall/Winter 2020.

by Leslie Landrigan

Pharmacists at Maine’s Sam’s Clubs and Walmart stores planned to begin giving COVID-19 vaccine to Mainers 70 and older starting on February 12, Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s Health and Human Services commissioner, said in a February 9 news conference. That includes the Myrick Avenue supercenter in Ellsworth, according to Walmart’s website.

Lambrew said Walmart would begin scheduling people through its website just hours after her announcement on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Walmart’s website opened to a page for making COVID-19 vaccine appointments. However, clicking through to any Maine Walmart site resulted in a message that the pharmacy at that location doesn’t administer the vaccine yet. (walmart.com/cp/1228302).

Walmart gets its vaccine from the federal government as part of a program to distribute COVID-19 vaccine through pharmacy chains.

Lambrew estimated close to 30 percent of Mainers over 70 had gotten their first shot. But she acknowledge the state still has a lot of work to do.

“We still have many more older Mainers to get to, including those that are in rural areas, [who] may have challenges getting to some of these sites,” Lambrew said.

More than 65 percent of COVID-19 deaths took place since Thanksgiving, and 85 percent of deaths were people 70 and older, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Still vaccinating the 1a’s

Maine still hasn’t finished vaccinating the first tier of recipients—residents of long-term care facilities and health care workers, Lambrew said.

Since Maine started to roll out the vaccine in mid-December, 15 percent of Mainers have received at least the first of two shots, said Dr. Nirav Shah, CDC director, during the briefing. A total of 200,927 shots have been given, he said. The reason more people haven’t been vaccinated boils down to one thing, he said: extremely limited supply of vaccine. Maine receives about 21,500 doses per week from the federal government, according to Maine CDC.

The state does plan to open more vaccination sites, and to set up a central registration system that people can access by phone and computer.

The vaccine doses that go to Maine’s Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies—as many as 4,800 weekly doses, Lambrew said—come on top of Maine’s weekly allocation from the federal government.

“We don’t envision that our participation in this federal program via Walmart will affect what happens to other recipients of vaccine in the state,” Shah said.

Frustration

Shah has acknowledged that strong demand for a limited number of shots is causing frustration among Maine’s seniors. So is the difficulty in navigating online registration forms, say people who’ve done it.

In her job as program coordinator for Healthy Peninsula, Anne Schroth helps register seniors for vaccine appointments.

When registration opens at 2 p.m. on Monday, the competition begins to get an appointment. On February 8, Schroth managed to get an appointment for two people at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital. “We were having a party on the phone when we got them,” Schroth said on a Healthy Island Project (HIP) Zoom call. “The adrenaline rush you get when you get an appointment is really fun.”

Rene Colson Hudson, HIP director, signed up three people for slots at the Blue Hill hospital that day. “It took two solid hours,” she said on the HIP call.

Hudson said it’s easier to get an appointment at the Cross Center in Bangor. Northern Light has set up a clinic there and says it can vaccinate 5,000 people a day—when there’s enough vaccine.

Schroth said things got a little easier for local seniors on February 9 because Northern Light announced that people can start making appointments at the Blue Hill hospital on Wednesdays as well as Mondays.

Bumps

After Maine’s 193,000 people over 70 receive the vaccine, people 65-69 will get it along with people who have chronic medical conditions, according to Maine CDC. Front-line essential workers will be next, but Maine still hasn’t decided who is included in that category.

Lambrew has said the state hopes to start vaccinating people in the 65-69 year old age group during the first week in March. “We have a lot of work to do to get through the 70-year-olds, then to the 65- to 69-year-olds,” she said.

Shah said it won’t always go smoothly.

“This will continue to be a bumpy road,” he said.