In his spare time, Steven Whitney likes to work among the trees. The retired geologist from Little Deer Isle has had plenty of time during the coronavirus pandemic.
He and his wife have holed up for months, venturing out mostly to go grocery shopping. His distraction has been to revive a three-acre plot by clearing dead spruce and young trees, but the end of isolation is in sight after Whitney, 73, became one of the earliest older Mainers to get a first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Thursday at Northern Light’s Blue Hill hospital.
Whitney feels relief, but he said he does not see himself venturing out much anytime soon. After watching health guidelines change and noting his wife is not yet vaccinated, he said it is better to be conservative until the pandemic subsides, likening this time to his upbringing in the 1960s, when war and domestic tension made many feel they were not in control of their fates.
“It made me realize there are some things you have to cope with, and this is one of them,” he said.
Whitney is an example of the complicated situation facing Mainers 70 and older. He is also one of the lucky ones. Older people became eligible for vaccines at the end of last week in Maine and other states, but federal supply issues have slowed the expansion. Health providers have seen a crush of requests for scarce appointments because of relatively small allocations.
Roughly 193,000 Mainers are aged 70 or older. Many have spent months separated from families and friends because their age or health make them more vulnerable to the virus. An estimated 135,000 Mainers over 50 live alone, according to AARP Maine. Social isolation can decrease life expectancy and increase odds of heart disease or a stroke.
Vaccines are no panacea. Officials have advised people should still wear masks and engage in distancing afterward, because it is not clear whether the vaccine prevents someone from harboring the virus and spreading it to others. But getting the vaccine or even being scheduled for it can be a lift to the people who need it most.
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“There is this urgency we’re hearing from members to get vaccinated so they can participate in life as they used to,” Lori Parham, AARP Maine’s director, said.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah urged people to be patient during a Tuesday briefing while acknowledging the frustration residents are feeling as they experience long waits on the phone or struggle to find appointment times online, asking them to “bear with us just a bit longer.”
Life for older people in parts of Maine can be difficult under normal circumstances, especially if they live alone in rural areas, have physical disabilities or are retired. The pandemic and the onset of winter compounds problems because activities deemed relatively safe, like going for a walk, are more difficult, Parham said.
“Many of them are not online,” she said. “They got their socialization from going to the Y, or the library, or going out with friends. Without those, they got isolated fast.”
There are efforts afoot to combat this: AARP volunteers offer training in Zoom and connect people to online classes, and the state of Maine is offering an emotional support hotline during the pandemic through its StrengthenME initiative.
Richard Koralek, 76, of Belfast said he has found socialization in quarantine. He and his wife get groceries delivered and have adapted to participating in the local Rotary Club and seeing their California grandchildren by Zoom. They watch “an awful lot of Netflix,” too, he admitted.
It was stable enough that Koralek initially wanted to wait to get vaccinated, figuring others were worse off. But the urging of his family and friends and his heart problems convinced him otherwise. He is now pursuing getting vaccinated at Waldo County Hospital, within walking distance from his house.
Koralek said he is “not in a big hurry” to be vaccinated, but looks forward to it. He keeps a Friday Zoom appointment with a friend for a beer. He would rather do it at the waterfront Marshall Wharf Brewing Co.
Grace Ledwith, 72, of Bangor feels more urgency. She and her husband have hardly left their duplex except to shop at the National Guard commissary. Some family members live in Bangor, but they rarely see each other for fear of the virus. She has masks in various corners of the house, from the kitchen to the chair next to her when she talks on the phone.
Ledwith said she called a hotline to set up an appointment and is now waiting for a call back. The wait, she said, is “nerve-wracking.”
“We know that if we did get [the virus], it could very well be the end of our lives,” she said.