Steven Whitney of Little Deer Isle is handed a card reminding him to return for a second dose of the coronavirus vaccine outside the Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital after getting his first dose on Jan. 21. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

From his home in Eastport, Doug Richardson is getting used to the rote task of trawling online for coronavirus vaccine appointments in either Ellsworth or Bangor, the two closest sites offering shots to Mainers aged 70 and up.

An appointment at either site would mean a drive of more than two hours for Richardson, who has cerebral palsy and was treated for prostate cancer a year and a half ago. It is a drive the 71-year-old would gladly do twice, as the vaccine requires two doses several weeks apart, but he has not been able to book an appointment so far amid high demand statewide. Closer hospitals in Machias and Calais are not offering vaccines to older Mainers yet.

As Maine enters its second week with older residents eligible for coronavirus vaccinations, an overall shortage of vaccines remains the largest problem, with demand for appointments far outpacing the number of doses sent to states by the federal government. At the rate of the state’s current allocations, it could be months until all residents age 70 and up are vaccinated, though President Joe Biden’s administration has said vaccine orders will increase next week.

But the early rollout of vaccines to the general public has also reflected familiar geographic and economic inequities. Rural Washington County, which has the second-lowest median income among Maine counties, and urban Lewiston, home to a large immigrant population, among the areas where providers have yet to begin scheduling older Mainers for vaccinations.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that equity remained “front and center” in the state’s vaccination plans, noting that nearly every hospital received fewer vaccines than it requested this week as federal supply remains limited. He added the agency regularly adjusts dose allocations between hospitals to match need.

“We would rather give everyone a little bit rather than a few places a lot,” Shah said.

Many older Mainers will have to wait for vaccines after the state entered Phase 1B this month. There are nearly 200,000 Mainers age 70 and older, but the state has continued to receive about 18,000 doses per week. But older Mainers who live in areas covered by the state’s two largest hospital systems, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, have a better shot at getting the vaccine sooner.

Those two systems are responsible for most of the clinics offering vaccines to older Mainers so far so far. Two practices in the Portland area have also begun offering vaccinations to current patients only. Smaller providers in Androscoggin, Kennebec and Washington counties are still finishing an initial phase for health care workers or preparing wider vaccine clinics.

For now, those smaller providers are more likely to have weeks where they receive no vaccines, according to the Maine CDC’s order lists. That has delayed the start of Phase 1B for some and interrupted it for others. York Hospital, which held a first vaccine clinic for older Mainers last week, announced it would be unable to hold a second one this week after receiving no new doses, Seacoast Online reported.

Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston received no doses in the week Phase 1B began, a spokesperson said at the time. The hospital did not respond to an inquiry about vaccinations for older Mainers Tuesday, but its website indicated it was still not scheduling appointments.

Calais Regional Hospital, one of two hospitals in Washington County, is working on vaccine clinic plans for older Mainers, but hopes to get a better idea of how many vaccines it can expect to avoid potential cancellations, spokesperson DeeDee Travis said.

“Especially for an organization of our size, we must carefully plan to offer access to vaccines as well as continue our commitment to the testing we have been providing since July,” Travis said. “There are many steps.”

With the exception of a few practices, most sites currently offering vaccinations to older Mainers do not require a pre-existing relationship with the provider. While Mainers who have the time and transportation can travel to a different hospital for a vaccine, Shah said people were generally advised to seek vaccines close to home, noting that they will be expected to seek a second vaccine dose at the same place they receive their first.

Several hospitals that have yet to offer vaccinations under Phase 1B said they had the capacity to administer more shots if they received doses. Julie Hixson, spokesperson for Down East Community Hospital in Machias, said the hospital had the capacity to administer up to 1,000 weekly doses and hoped to begin vaccinating older Mainers in Phase 1B next week.

St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston is prepared to extend vaccinations to Mainers age 70 and up next week if it receives enough doses, said spokesperson Steve Costello. He said the hospital has the capacity between 500 and 1,000 vaccinations per week and was working toward expanding that in anticipation of greater availability in the future.

Across the state, older Mainers are waiting eagerly. In Eastport, Richardson has been confined to his home for the past few months as the cerebral palsy limits his mobility and he deals with the side effects of radiation. His wife, a nurse, recently got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. He hopes he can get vaccinated too, either locally or even driving a few hours.

“It’d be a comfort in the sense that I have enough going on in my life as is,” Richardson said. “The last thing I need is having to deal with COVID.”

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