AUGUSTA, Maine — The inclusion of donors and retired staff in a first round of coronavirus vaccine appointments for people 70 and older at an Augusta hospital risked a “perception of inequity,” the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
The comments from Nirav Shah came after MaineGeneral Health vaccinated its first 60 older patients on Monday after opening registration to members of the general public on Friday. The hospital’s philanthropy office made calls to people to offer slots in that clinic, which included a small number of past donors, as first reported by the Bangor Daily News on Sunday.
The episode mirrored similar situations nationally that have drawn negative attention and concerns of inequity around the vaccine distribution effort. In Maine, demand for appointments has far exceeded the supply of doses from the federal government. MaineGeneral, the state’s third-largest health provider, reported 400,000 calls to its registration line on Friday alone.
MaineGeneral said its first clinic was designed to test its registration and other processes ahead of a wider rollout to newly eligible people 70 and older that will begin on Wednesday. It picked a test group of 40 people that included retired staff, patients and community members, later adding 20 people who called the registration line on Friday, a spokesperson said.
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Of that group, 12 people were donors, CEO Chuck Hays said on MaineGeneral’s website after the BDN story was published. A donor reached out to the paper after they were contacted by the philanthropy director on Jan. 21, who later offered them a vaccine slot citing his past support of the hospital. Ethicists said it was reasonable for MaineGeneral to test its procedures before wider clinics began, but involving philanthropy staff and donors risked a negative perception.
Shah told reporters on Tuesday that he had no firsthand knowledge of MaineGeneral’s clinic, but his agency said last week that it had received a complaint about a donor contact and reminded the provider about the state’s commitment to vaccine equity. The Maine CDC director said trust in information and trust in the vaccine are crucial to the distribution effort.
“But an equal piece of this is trust in the process and these perceptions of … favoritism, they raise concerns,” he said.
His comments largely echoed those of Gov. Janet Mills, who said through a spokesperson on Monday that the state has spoken to MaineGeneral and “will be reiterating to providers across the that it expects vaccines to be administered equitably” and in line with the state’s plan.
MaineGeneral has insisted that the clinic was not intended to give anyone special treatment. Hays said in his message that officials “are disheartened that it could be misconstrued.”
In a Monday interview, Hays said the group was assembled to ensure they could give the hospital feedback, adding that the state’s inability to so far stand up a statewide registration system — which is expected in the next several weeks — led to a harried effort by the hospital.
“This is us trying to do our best efforts,” he said.
But Maine’s two largest providers, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, which have vaccinated thousands of older people, did not include philanthropy staff or donors in their efforts to test internal processes, which Shah noted when asked about Hays’ comments on Tuesday.
Jeff Hubert, a partner at the Augusta accounting firm Wipfli who sits on MaineGeneral’s board and once chaired it, said on Monday he was aware that the hospital was doing an initial clinic but he did not know how the group was going to be selected.
“I can tell you that they’re trying to do everything in the best interest of our community right now and trying to roll [the vaccines] out in a way that’s safe for everyone,” he said.