The new COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Belfast, which is open to people by appointment only, is located in an unused building in the former MBNA complex.  Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will mail letters to 31,000 low-income seniors and set up a clinic in Lewiston targeting older members of the Somali community as part of a bid to ensure equity in distributing the coronavirus vaccine, a top state health official said Thursday.

More than 97,000 Mainers received a first round of vaccinations by Thursday as the state wraps up a second week with vaccinations extended to residents over age 70. Demand continues to significantly exceed the state’s allocation of vaccines from the federal government, but the early rollout has also disadvantaged seniors in rural areas, with some needing to travel more than two hours to the nearest clinic.

Mailing letters with information about vaccine eligibility to 31,000 low-income seniors is one way the state planned to address equity issues, Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters on Thursday. She said the agency was also working on plans to send vaccines to federally qualified health centers which aid underserved populations, including for the Lewiston clinic that will target older Somali people.

She said there was not yet a timeline for opening such a clinic, but Maine DHHS was working with two Lewiston health care providers. Similar conversations were underway about setting up clinics in senior housing authority projects, Lambrew said.

The first phase of Maine’s vaccine rollout targeted health care workers, residents of long term care facilities, first responders and other workers critical to virus response. The state then began offering vaccines to residents over the age of 70 last week.

Maine released demographic data for vaccine recipients for the first time this week, but about 40 percent of people who have received the vaccine have not provided race or ethnicity information, impeding efforts to evaluate how equitable the rollout has been.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday the agency was working with providers to encourage patients to fill out race and ethnicity information in order to help the state’s response.

“We want to make sure we are reaching populations that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, whether that’s because of their race or ethnicity, because of their geography or because of their age,” Shah said.

Maine has seen large racial disparities in coronavirus cases, with Black and African American Mainers accounting for 5.3 percent of virus cases despite being only 1.4 percent of the state’s population, according to data from the Maine CDC.

Shah also said Thursday that the 4,400 Moderna vaccines that got too cold during transit last week are still viable and will be used. Vaccines at 35 sites were replaced last week after temperature monitors suggested they had gotten out of their acceptable temperature range during transit. Investigators later concluded that the packages got too cold, rather than too warm, so the vaccines were still usable.

Maine is currently negotiating with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether Maine will be debited 4,400 doses on a future vaccine order since the doses were replaced last week. The state is arguing that it should not lose out on a future order, as a courier, not any entity in Maine, was responsible for the temperature issue, Shah said.

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