Central Maine Medical Center Director of the Pharmacy Bruce Campbell places newly arrived COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer in St. Mary's Regional Medical Center's ultra cold freezer, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. Vahid Rohani, St. Mary's pharmacy director, opens the freezer supplied by Bates College. The two hospitals are coordinating on the vaccination effort. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

Maine may move slower than expected when it begins to vaccinate a wide group of older and vulnerable people against the coronavirus after news emerged Friday that a large reserve of doses promised by the federal government did not exist.

The news is a blow to the federal and state efforts to fight the virus. The administration of President Donald Trump announced this week that it would release a large reserve of doses that were being held in reserve for second shots, but The Washington Post reported Friday that the reserve was already depleted by the time that announcement came.

It led to a change in federal guidelines prompting states to advance massive groups of people on their priority lists. Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday moved Mainers 70 and older and those with health conditions making them vulnerable to the virus into a second round of vaccinations, behind frontline health care workers and workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the news would not affect Maine’s decision to vaccinate the next group beginning next week but could delay the speed at which the state moves through that population. He said it was “imperative” to continue with that group because of their vulnerability to the virus.

Shah said he was “disappointed” after being informed of the depleted reserve just hours before he spoke to reporters on Friday and he was still looking into the implications. For now, he said the state may be seeing a mostly flat supply going forward.

“Right now, there are more questions than there are answers,” he said.

The breakdown is just one of the examples of how aspects of the federal response have hampered Maine’s ability to vaccinate its population, one of the oldest in the nation and where 42 percent of residents over the age of 18 are at risk of serious illness if they contract the virus, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report.

Demand for the coming vaccine slots has already been high in Maine, which has one of the largest shares of people vulnerable to the virus among states. Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent, which began taking names for people to get on their vaccination list on Wednesday, has already gotten 2,500 calls since then, a spokesperson said Friday. The St. John Valley hospital has a patient population of only 9,500. Some calls came from out of state.

In addition to uncertainty around allocations, Shah said states are “scrambling” to find an online platform to create a registry system for Mainers to see when they might be eligible, where they could get a shot and take them through the informed consent process. Another system, the IZ Gateway, was expected to create a national system keeping track of who has been vaccinated. 

Maine has also had to intervene multiple times in the rollout of vaccines at long-term care facilities, governed by a federal partnership with large pharmacy chains. Shah said the state took 975 new doses from Walgreens — the same one it took doses from last week — and gave them to an independent Bangor pharmacy after the chain had no immediate plans to use them. 

That program has been criticized as being slow and cumbersome, with staffing a possible constraint. The problem was concerning enough that Shah said he reassigned some care facilities not yet scheduled for initial vaccination clinics to independent pharmacies.

Vaccinations for older and vulnerable Mainers could still begin next week in some places, though the Fort Kent hospital does not expect them to come until February. John Porter, a spokesperson for Portland-based MaineHealth, said the system’s practices are seeing “high volumes” of requests about vaccines but must ask people to wait as it works to set up a call center to handle appointments.

Many hospitals had not planned for the large increase promised by the federal government immediately because “we have been consistently disappointed” it has promised to provide, Steven Michaud, the president of Maine Hospital Association, said.

“The track record tells us to plan but be cautious,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of vaccines Maine CDC took from Walgreens.

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