For 44 years, Libby Ranco ferried Old Town schoolchildren through good and bad weather. The coronavirus pandemic finally put a pause on the 83-year-old’s career.
She has not driven her bus since Christmastime because of health concerns and now misses the camaraderie of fellow drivers and talking to the children, some of whose parents and grandparents she also drove.
Ranco, of Alton, may be back in a bus soon after receiving her first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Thursday at Penobscot Community Health Care’s Bangor location. She was the first of 100 people expected for a shot at the center that day and one of the few Mainers to get one through a Federally Qualified Health Center, a provider that delivers care to underserved areas.
The process took roughly 20 minutes from start to finish. Ranco said the staff’s easy demeanor — a group of University of Maine students administered her shot — made her feel at ease.
“I haven’t had any anxiety, and I’m one for anxiety,” she said, noting she had initially been doubtful of whether she wanted to be vaccinated at all.
These centers have played a relatively small role in Maine’s statewide vaccine efforts so far, but they are providing some of the first doses in rural areas that have fallen into initial gaps in the state’s hospital-centered rollout. The smaller or mobile clinics are often closer to people who might have to otherwise travel hours to get shots or would have trouble navigating to larger sites.
“Our patient population gets nervous at the idea of trying to get to these mass vaccination sites, because they don’t have the transportation or mobility to do so,” said Robin Winslow, the CEO of Hometown Health Center, which has two main locations in Dexter and Newport. “We play a really crucial role in reaching those vulnerable populations.”
The majority of Maine’s doses for the public have gone to bigger hospitals as part of a strategy of getting as many vaccines out as quickly as possible with a constrained federal supply. Since vaccines began rolling out to Mainers 70 and older in January, health centers have gotten an increasing but small share of allocations with 4.6 percent of Maine’s overall total expected to be distributed to them next week.
Despite those small figures, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said on Thursday the centers have been “integral” to the state’s mission of distributing vaccines equitably.
“We know they play a vital role in their community,” he said. “They’re trusted and easier to access for many people.”
These centers, similar to independent health care providers, say they could handle many more vaccines. Winslow said her centers received a cumulative 50 doses that allowed them to vaccinate staff and just a few patients. It opened up a hotline for people to sign up for vaccines last Thursday and accumulated a waitlist of 220 people in a week.
Penobscot Community Health Care has received 1,000 doses, the most out of any federally qualified centers so far, according to state records. It has primarily vaccinated people through its Bangor clinic, but occasionally sent doses to Belfast and Jackman offices. On Monday, the center held a mobile clinic at Marsh Island Apartments in Old Town.
Planning those kinds of clinics can be challenging, said Theresa Knowles, the chief qualify officer for Penobscot Community Health Care, because the center only gets a few days’ advance notice on whether it will get vaccines. She said it planned to host a mobile clinic central to a patient population next week if it received a new batch.
Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs for the center, said it has taken a targeted approach, reaching out to people over the age of 70 who are Black or people of color, are obese or have comorbidities.
“It really allows us to target our very highest risk patients first,” he said.
Shah said he “commended” that approach, but said centers should not let efforts to find the most vulnerable patients slow their efforts to vaccinate people.
Knowles does not think that will be a problem. Of all the patients contacted by the center, three have declined a shot, she said. Last week, one husband and wife were so eager to get vaccinated that they left their groceries in the parking lot.
“They were so pleased they were called,” she said. “There’s a desperation to get vaccinated, but also, people are excited.”