A Northern Light A.R. Gould hospital employee prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital

FORT KENT, Maine — Aroostook County will get both COVID-19 vaccines earlier than it otherwise would have thanks to good planning by two St. John Valley pharmacists.

Charles Ouellette of St. John Valley Pharmacy in Fort Kent and John Hebert of Hebert Rexall Pharmacy in Van Buren will start administering the vaccines this week at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities they have contracted with throughout Aroostook County.

Ouellette and Hebert plan to provide the vaccines to other members of the public sometime during late winter and early spring.

The two pharmacists, who also own Bangor Drug in Bangor, have purchased two ultra cold freezer units — one for Rexall Pharmacy in Van Buren and one for Bangor — capable of holding 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Bangor Drug is among the pharmacies that will administer the vaccines statewide.

The freezers were purchased in October in anticipation of the Pfizer vaccine receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has approved that vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, which can be kept in a standard commercial freezer the pharmacists already own..

“We were tracking the vaccine trials very early,” Hebert said.

Even though Aroostook County is vast, rural and more remote than Maine’s larger population centers in central and southern Maine, it will get access to a highly sought after life-saving vaccine because of Ouellette’s and Hebert’s quick thinking.

Aroostook County is just now seeing a more rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, with outbreaks at nursing homes in Presque Isle and Madawaska most recently and a few cases in schools. Its total confirmed cases as of Monday was 505, and four deaths, since the beginning of the pandemic. But until the past couple of months, its number of cases were in the single digits.

“I know that there’s a lot of concern that we’ll have access up here, and we certainly will,” Ouellette said. “Between me and John, there will probably be almost 1,000 people being vaccinated, if not more, just in The County.”

The vaccines need to be stored at different temperatures to maintain their clinical integrity — the Pfizer vaccine between minus 80 and minus 60 degrees Celsius, and the Moderna vaccine between minus 25 and minus 15 degrees Celsius.

Hebert Rexall pharmacist Marco Beaulieu (left) and Hebert Rexall Pharmacy owner and pharmacist John Hebert stand next to a new ultra cold freezer Hebert and St. John Valley Pharmacy owner Charles Ouellette purchased to store thousands of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. Credit: Courtesy of John Hebert

The ultra cold freezers necessary for the Pfizer vaccine cost several thousands of dollars each. If the pharmacists were to try to order one of these freezers now, they would be waiting for months for it to arrive, Hebert said.

The two freezers and a generator cost the pharmacists in excess of $20,000, he said.

The pharmacists also purchased a large capacity generator that turns on automatically and will protect the vaccines in the event of a power outage.

“Teaming up was the best move and best way to service our patients throughout the Valley and make sure they are not overlooked up here,” Hebert said.

Both vaccines require a two-shot regimen, three weeks between injections for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks between injections for the Moderna vaccine. Both pharmacists attest to the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

“There are side effects and adverse reactions that people have experienced including pain at the injection site, which is not uncommon for vaccines, and a little bit of temperature elevation after administration, maybe some malaise or headache,” Ouellette said. “That is not uncommon at all for vaccines like this and is actually good because it’s a sign the body is building an immune response to the virus. Those symptoms usually go away within a day or so.”

Ouellette added that he and Hebert are trained to respond to potential allergic reactions to the vaccine.

“It’s a rarity, not higher than other vaccinations, but it can happen and it is something we would treat if it does happen,” Ouellette said.

The COVID-19 vaccine has a 95 percent immunity rate, Ouellette said. He added that the only other vaccine that has that level of immunity is the measles vaccine.

The United States has been essentially free of measles for nearly 20 years because most people are vaccinated against the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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