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First doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered to Maine frontline health care workers

Kayla Mitchell, an RN in the COVID-19 ICU unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland, was the first to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

PORTLAND, Maine — A MaineHealth registered nurse became the first Mainer to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday at 9 a.m. 

Kayla Mitchell, RN, BSN, is a nurse who treats COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit at Maine Medical Center. She is one of 150 MaineHealth caregivers who will be vaccinated Tuesday at Maine Medical Center in Portland and Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford.

"This is one step closer to building a safer healthier community and I'm just very lucky to have been a part of that," Mitchell told NEWS CENTER Maine.

She said this year wasn't anything like she expected it to be. She said it was challenging at the start of the pandemic, but then she and other front line workers got a little break when numbers started to decline this summer, but then cases started rising again.

"This fall and into winter has just been relentless. It's exhausting," she said.

MaineHealth, the region’s largest integrated health system, is set to receive an initial allotment of 1,900 doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer during the first week of distribution.

On Wednesday, vaccinations will start at a third MaineHealth hospital, Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick. Those three southern Maine hospitals have treated the most COVID-19 patients during the pandemic within MaineHealth and were prioritized for the first doses for that reason.

MaineHealth officials say initially, distribution will focus on Intensive Care Unit teams, front-line Emergency Department caregivers, those providing care in dedicated COVID-19 inpatient units, and other critical and essential inpatient services not available elsewhere.

Doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived to Central Maine Medical Center (CMMC) in Lewiston Tuesday. The hospital received 975 doses of the vaccine, 500 of which will be shared with St. Mary's Health System. 

Across Central Maine Healthcare, a dedicated team of nurses, pharmacists, clinicians, and support team members are prepared to administer frontline team members this week in line with the principles laid out by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, CMMC said in a release. 

"We have been coordinating with [St. Mary's] leadership to ensure that frontline caregivers at both of our organizations are protected so we maintain continuity of care for the communities we serve, including residents who are most affected by the pandemic, underserved, experiencing homelessness or are people of color," CMMC said. 

Credit: Courtesy Central Maine Healthcare

RELATED: US on track to approve 2nd COVID-19 vaccine by end of week

A second vaccine, made by Moderna, is set for review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) expert panel on Thursday. Assuming that vaccine is approved, MaineHealth is expecting another 15,775 doses to arrive beginning the week of Dec. 21, including another 975 Pfizer doses with the balance from Moderna. That will be enough vaccine to inoculate all of MaineHealth’s direct caregivers.

“By having our care team protected against COVID-19, we can better assure that we will be ready to treat, not just those suffering with COVID, but everyone who needs care during this time,” Dr. Dora Mills, MD, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer, in a release Tuesday.

Several weeks ago, MaineHealth formed a system-wide task force with clinicians from all nine of its local health systems to oversee distribution of the vaccine among its front-line caregivers. The task force has been working to set up vaccine clinics across the system in an effort to vaccinate care team members as quickly as possible.

It will take several weeks to vaccinate all eligible team members across the system. While the logistics of storing and transporting the vaccines require planning given that the Pfizer product requires ultra-cold storage and the Moderna vaccine also has to be frozen, the biggest hurdle to overcome is finding doctors and nurses to staff the vaccine clinics. MaineHealth has been actively recruiting staff for the clinics for several weeks. Among those recruited to provide vaccinations are retired doctors and nurses who have volunteered to help in the effort. 

“It’s a credit to our teams across the system that they were able to come together so quickly and get shots in arms within hours of the arrival of the vaccine,” Mills said. “This effort speaks to how critically important this vaccine is to maintaining our readiness to help our communities through this pandemic.”

Mills noted that vaccinations will not diminish the need to take precautions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Within MaineHealth, all safety measures will remain in place, including the use of personal protective equipment, extra cleaning of surfaces, segregation of patients known or suspected of having COVID-19 and daily screening for symptoms of all employees.

“Now is not the time to let our guard up,” Mills said. “With vaccines not expected to become widely available to the public until spring or early summer, we still have a very dangerous winter to get through.”

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses in order to be effective. For people who receive the Pfizer vaccine, they will receive a second dose 17-21 days later. For Moderna, if and when it's approved, it will require a second dose 17-28 days after the first dose.

Both Maine Health and Northern Light Health officials say hospitals will not be mandating employees to get this vaccine.

"Given the extraordinary safety and efficacy data that we see in the clinical trials, I think that we could be on the verge of seeing the most astounding public health and scientific success of our lifetimes," Dr. Mills said. "And I don't say that lightly I've seen a lot of public health and scientific successes but none that look like are going to be holding a candle to this."

Watch NEWS CENTER Maine's Jackie Mundry's full interview with Kayla Mitchell here:

This story will be updated.