For Teresa Cyr, a Friday appointment for a coronavirus vaccine at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle brought a sigh of relief. The 85-year-old from Fort Fairfield called the local agency on aging for help registering and got an appointment within a week.
“I think it will make me less worried for me and my family,” Cyr said.
She is one of the more than 7,500 Aroostook County residents who have gotten a first vaccine as Maine has continued to roll them out to residents age 70 and up. The largest county by land area east of the Mississippi River has led the state in early administration, with 11.4 percent of residents getting a first dose and 4.3 percent having received second doses.
At first glance, isolated Aroostook County might not seem well-suited for a quick rollout. It has seen lower flu vaccination rates than the state overall over the past few years, according to federal data. News that the Pfizer vaccine would require ultra-cold storage prompted early concern that rural areas would be hampered in early campaigns.
On the ground, independent pharmacies have succeeded in giving vaccines at long-term care facilities. Holiday outbreaks may have reduced vaccine hesitancy and a tight network of public health agencies have been quick to assist older residents. As it is nationally, supply is still a major barrier. Demand for appointments still outstrips doses hospitals can offer.
“We’re really communicating well as a county, I think, which is traditionally true for Aroostook County,” said Joy Barresi Saucier, executive director of the Aroostook Area Agency On Aging, which runs a call line to help older residents like Cyr get appointments. “We rally together, and we know each other well up here.”
Mainers aged 70 and up are eligible to receive the vaccine as part of Phase 1B of the state’s distribution plan while also finishing Phase 1A, which offers vaccines to health care workers, residents long-term care facilities and other workers considered essential to the virus response.
The vaccine rollout in December came as Aroostook County, after avoiding the worst of the virus for much of the pandemic, saw a sharp rise in infections, including deadly outbreaks in long-term care facilities. The County has a slightly higher share of residents in nursing homes than other Maine counties. Many facilities have long-standing relationships with independent pharmacies and relied on them to administer early vaccines.
That relationship likely built trust around the vaccine, said John Hebert, owner of Hebert Rexall in Van Buren, who put together materials to combat misinformation about vaccines on social media. The outbreaks reduced vaccine hesitancy, particularly among nursing home workers, who have been less likely than residents to take the vaccine, he said.
“It might have convinced a lot of employees who might have been on the fence about receiving the vaccine to go ahead and get it, because it was brought home to them what happens with the virus,” Hebert said.
Charlie Ouellette, owner of St. John Valley Pharmacy in Fort Kent, noted many of the homes where he administered the COVID-19 vaccine were places where he had held flu shot clinics in the fall. He said many patients who had not wanted a flu shot were still eager for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Hebert and Ouellette co-own Bangor Drug.)
As Maine has moved into vaccinating older residents, Aroostook County was quicker than most in launching public vaccine clinics. It currently has five sites — in Houlton, Presque Isle, Caribou, Fort Kent and Madawaska — run by four different hospitals.
Despite the County’s geographic size, more than half its population is in those five places. While people from smaller towns may have to drive an hour or more, most County residents live within a 15-minute drive of a vaccination site. That average time is as low or lower than those in all Maine counties except three — populous Cumberland, York and Androscoggin.
While internet issues and lack of transportation have posed problems for some seniors, community resources are filling that gap. The Aroostook Area Agency On Aging’s call line received more than 650 calls in its first two weeks and helped more than 300 get vaccinations.
Saucier, the executive director, credits that success to good coordination. The call line, staffed mostly by volunteers, refers seniors to the Aroostook Regional Transportation System if they need a ride. Hospitals contact the agency when vaccine slots open unexpectedly.
Kennebec County, with nearly twice the population of Aroostook, has fewer public vaccination sites. Bob Corey, 74, of Augusta, spent seven hours calling MaineGeneral Health when the hospital first opened vaccine registration to the public. He was finally able to pre-register this week, but is still waiting for a call back about an appointment.
“I want to see my grandkids,” he said. “They live down in Massachusetts, and I’ve seen them once in over a year.”
Supply remains a challenge across the state, including in Aroostook County. Northern Maine Medical Center, which opened two clinics at Knights of Columbus halls in Madawaska and Fort Kent, canceled appointments this week after not receiving doses.
Northern Light AR Gould Hospital has talked with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention about turning its clinic at Northern Maine Community College into a mass vaccination site that could administer up to 2,000 doses per day, said Greg LaFrancois, the president of the Presque Isle hospital. For now, he is only expecting 1,000 doses per week.
Elaine Small, 76, of Island Falls, has tried to set up appointments in Bangor, Houlton, Lincoln and Presque Isle. But Small, who works in a school, has been waylaid by website malfunctions and is waiting to hear back from places where she pre-registered.
“I know I’m eligible, but can’t make it happen,” she said.
BDN writers Jessica Potila and Melissa Lizotte contributed to this report.