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Maine speeds up COVID-19 vaccine for older residents

Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that Maine will focus on vaccinating those 70 and older, police, firefighters, and critical COVID response personnel.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As hundreds of thousands of Mainers wait for their chance to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Governor Janet Mills says the wait for some is getting shorter.

“The object is simple: to save as many lives as possible,” Mills said Wednesday.

The revised vaccine plan Mills announced at Wednesday's Maine CDC briefing will expand the so-called Phase 1-A list of front-line health-care workers already getting the vaccine to include workers at labs like IDEXX, Abbott, Puritan Medical, and the Maine CDC itself, as well as police and firefighters.

But the biggest jump in vaccine eligibility will come from adding Mainers age 70 and older, and adults with serious medical conditions. Those people could start getting shots by the end of this month—far sooner than originally planned.

“COVID poses a greater risk of serious illness or death to older people and those with underlying health conditions,” Mills said. “More than 85 percent of COVID-19-related deaths in our state have been among people 70 years of age and older … and 17 percent of Maine people 70 and older have been hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to less than one percent of all people at a younger age."

But Mills said the revised plan depends on when Maine receives additional doses of vaccine.

"Chief among our challenges is the fact that Maine is receiving a limited, unpredictable, and inconsistent number of doses from the fed government," Mills said. "This week we received only 100 doses more than last week and less than what we got at the end of December."

The announcement follows a policy change Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which said it wants all states to speed up the pace of vaccinations and broaden the range of people getting them to include those age 65 and up.

Mills said a continuing shortage of the vaccine led her to set the age at 70 but she added that if Maine does get assurance of significantly more doses, she will drop the age limit to 65.

Even considering those 70 and up, it will add a large number of people to vaccine lists. Mills said Maine has 193,000 people in that age group and vaccinating all of them will take a lot of planning.

The Maine CDC admits vaccine clinics may need to be set up in public buildings, perhaps civic centers in cities, with gyms or other public buildings in smaller communities.

There are questions, too, about who will do the work, and students might be part of the answer. The pharmacy school at Husson University is already training more pharmacy workers to give shots.

And the University of New England says it is already sending people from its medical, pharmacy, and nursing schools to administer vaccines.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said a big influx of vaccine will definitely require more sites.

”That intensifies our desire to get community vaccination sites stood up … so as we expand now, as the governor outlined earlier, to groups quite large so we can move as quickly as possible,” he said.

Dr. Shah said more details on those plans should be coming next week, although they are still evolving.

He said the most urgent question right now is how much vaccine Maine can expect to receive. The U.S. CDC said it will release all available doses—including the millions being held for second doses—although it has also assured states second doses will be available when needed.

As of Wednesday, the Maine CDC was reporting 62,004 people had been vaccinated so far—8,493 having received both doses, while the majority have received just the first dose.

The CDC says vaccinating the initial priority group of front-line health-care workers, nursing home residents, and staff—Phase 1A—should be complete by February 1.

Phase 1B, now including adults age 70 and older and those with high-risk medical conditions, is slated to begin this month. Additional information about this phase should be available next week, Mills said.

RELATED: New COVID-19 vaccine guidelines likely to bring state changes

RELATED: WATCH LIVE: Gov. Mills joins Maine CDC, DHHS for state coronavirus update

Watch Mills discuss the changes during Wednesday's coronavirus briefing here: