Maine’s nursing homes are preparing to vaccinate staff and vulnerable residents by next week, but the rollout is plagued with questions as homes report start times into January amid concerns about vaccine volume and the pharmacy giants leading the effort.
The first rounds of vaccinations for Maine’s nearly 6,000 nursing home residents and at least a portion of approximately 20,000 people who care for them identified in the state’s vaccination plan will begin Monday after a first round of Moderna vaccines is likely to be approved after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel recommended it for emergency use on Thursday.
Details including how many doses Maine homes will initially receive are opaque before the effort is expected to begin a week after health care workers got the state’s first vaccines. Maine was one of several states to say on Thursday that the federal government slashed a Pfizer delivery estimate set for next week. Officials have questions about how the rollout managed by large pharmacy chains as part of federal contracts outside their jurisdiction will occur.
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Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Wednesday that all 94 of the state’s skilled nursing facilities should receive a first round of vaccines by the end of the first week in January, but he stated concerns about whether the pharmacies can deliver.
“We’ve been asking the pharmacies pretty hard questions about how many staff they’ve got, and whether they can really fulfill this promise that they’ve made to the U.S. CDC, as well as to the long term care facilities,” he said.
Shah spokesperson Robert Long said Thursday that Shah’s concerns were related to “lingering” questions about how the federal government and the pharmacies contracted to distribute the vaccine will administer and report vaccinations.
It comes as CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens — the two major brands operating in Maine and contracted by the U.S. CDC to disperse vaccines to the nursing facilities — are going on a hiring spree, promoting 35,000 jobs nationally. A CVS spokesperson said the company is looking to hire 40 people for the task in Maine. A Walgreens spokesperson did not have a number for Maine but said the company is looking to hire 25,000 people nationally.
The reduction in expected Pfizer doses means only 3,900 doses will go to nursing homes after the state was told to expect 40 percent fewer Pfizer vaccines than anticipated, the Maine CDC said. The issue highlighted how hamstrung the state is when not directly involved in the response. Gov. Janet Mills called the development “frustrating.”
Joe Bruno, the CEO of Augusta-based Community Pharmacies and the president of the Maine Board of Pharmacy, was doubtful the pharmacy companies could hire enough people on short notice to administer vaccines quickly. His company’s nine locations will help with nursing facilities vaccination efforts, although vaccines will not arrive until early January.
The rollout will reach facilities at different points. Durgin Pines in Kittery, one of the hardest-hit nursing homes during the pandemic, will be getting its first inoculations on Monday, said Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, the facility’s medical director. Bangor Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center CEO Brett Seekins said his facility will not see a first round until early January.
Fazeli said he has been pushing for the facility to be one of the first to get vaccinations because of its outbreaks, which he said comprise 80 cases. An outbreak investigation was reopened there earlier this month after the facility saw a 14th death related to the virus.
He said the first clinic would be able to cover all 44 of the facility’s current residents and their regular staff, with two follow-up clinics to cover new hires and residents. Fazeli said he would prioritize eight residents who had yet to get sick and two who had the virus previously but did not show signs of any immune resistance when tested.
“Normally, I’d advocate for giving it to the staff first, as they’re more exposed to the community,” he said. But because of the severity of the outbreak, Fazeli said it was more critical to “protect the remaining residents” quarantined in a separate unit.
In Bangor, Seekins said he is still going through the process of getting informed consent from residents and staff. He did not know why his facility was getting a later round of vaccines, but guessed it could be related to resources — Pfizer vaccines need to be stored at super-cold temperatures to remain viable, while Moderna’s can be stored at more normal temperatures. It could also be a matter of how the pandemic has affected the facility.
“By the good grace of God,” Bangor Nursing Home has not had a coronavirus case since spring, he said.