Super-cold air spills from a freezer as Richard Meinking, Director of Pharmacy at Maine Medical Center, stores a package of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine a temperature of minus 75 degrees Celsius, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Credit: Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald via AP

Lesley Robinson’s life during the coronavirus pandemic changed with the chime of her phone on Monday afternoon.

It was a 4 p.m. email from Northern Light Health letting her and thousands of others know that the health system serving northern, eastern and central Maine was now making coronavirus vaccine appointments. Robinson, 71, of Hancock, got a Friday appointment at Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth. She was “delighted” after months of social distancing with her husband.

“I’ve been wanting to get this done because we all have to do our part to keep others safe,” she said.

But Robinson was one of only a relatively small group of Mainers who have been able to get an appointment after the state extended vaccine eligibility to people age 70 and over. People seeking vaccines slammed providers’ phone lines and online portals, reporting trying to get slots for hours to no avail as federal supply issues threaten to slow the vaccine expansion.

MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care system, received calls from 18,000 people seeking appointments on Monday, a spokesperson said. Intermed, a primary care practice in southern Maine, emailed more than 2,000 patients over the age of 80 on Sunday to offer slots that were all filled by 11:15 a.m. Monday. On Tuesday, Northern Light opened up 358 appointments for Jan. 27 at a Presque Isle center. By 5 p.m., one remained.

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“We are at a point right now where demand exceeds supply,” Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Tuesday. “One of the corollaries of that is that for a little while, it may be tough to get through. We ask that you bear with us and bear with those hospitals and clinics.”

Mainers also reported challenges in navigating online forms that require a quick trigger finger. Kelly Chenot, of Bangor, took on the task of scheduling a vaccine for her 94-year-old grandmother, who lives with her uncle. Chenot got the same email Robinson did on Monday, but did not see it until almost an hour later as she picked up dinner with her son.

Chenot quickly tried to sign up, but she had to get her grandmother’s medical information from her uncle. By the time she made it through the portal, it was close to 6 p.m., and the slots were filled. The portal did not allow her to save information. She will have to fill it in all over again.

Still kicking herself for missing the email, Chenot said she will keep calling every day until she can get a slot for her grandmother.

“I haven’t hugged my grandmother since March because I’m terrified of getting her sick,” she said.

Northern Light is working on improvements to the website and alternatives for patients who were unable to use it as more vaccines became available, said Dr. James Jarvis, who is leading the system’s coronavirus response. It will offer additional appointments next Monday, though the number would depend on how many vaccines it got in its next shipment, Jarvis said.

State health officials cite supply as the main challenge. After states expanded their vaccine plans to include a wide group of older people last week upon promises that the federal government would be releasing a reserve of vaccines, it was revealed that the reserve did not exist. Maine is expecting mostly flat weekly vaccine shipments for the foreseeable future.

“We want to vaccinate those who are interested in being vaccinated as soon as possible, but we’re hampered by the supply that comes to us from the federal government,” Jarvis said.

Providers are expanding to vaccinate the new population at varying speeds. The first vaccinations of people aged 70 and older at Northern Light Health locations will take place later this week. Two of MaineHealth’s locations, Franklin Community Health Network in Farmington and Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick, began vaccinating older people on Tuesday, while other sites will begin to offer vaccines later this week or next week.

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Intermed can vaccinate about 300 of its oldest patients per day, spokesperson John Lamb said. Central Maine Health Care, which operates three hospitals including Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, was not scheduling vaccinations for patients age 70 and over as of Tuesday after the hospital did not receive vaccines this week. John Alexander, the chief medical officer, said the system was working to set up a process for future appointments based on availability.

Independent physicians have found themselves in a middlemen role as patients call looking for information on vaccines, said Dan Morin, a spokesperson for the Maine Medical Association. Some patients may also be unwilling to drive long distances to get a vaccine if their local provider cannot offer one right away, he noted.

But Anne Kessler of Hampden has no such reservations. She is on the list for her local provider to get vaccinated when it is available, but is eyeing a trip to Northern Light Health’s Portland location — where she was once a patient — if that will get her vaccinated sooner.

A 71-year-old former nurse, Kessler said the wait frustrates her, particularly as she sees reports of people waiting in line for hours in places like Florida. Those images, the slow rollout of vaccines at the federal level and the uncertainty of when she will get a shot makes her wonder if some people are jumping the queue. She wants everyone to have a chance.

“I hate to feel like, ‘Why can you get it and I can’t?’” she said. “I get angry at times, because it shouldn’t be this way.”

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