Minh Hoang of Maine Health fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccine at the former Scarborough Downs horse racing track on Wednesday Feb. 3, 2021. The 30,000 square-foot makeshift clinic will the capacity to vaccinate up to 2,000 people per day. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is creating a targeted strike team of nurses to help short-staffed long-term care facilities and hire more people to coordinate its coronavirus vaccination sites as the immunization effort requires health providers to stretch limited staff.

Vaccinating Maine’s long-term care facilities has largely been the responsibility of two retail pharmacy chains, although the state has often shifted doses to independent groups to speed up distribution. Long-term care facility residents are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of their age and comorbidities. A January survey of Maine homes found that residents are far more willing to be vaccinated than staffers.

The vaccine ramp-up challenges providers to get employees scheduled and still provide care in other parts of the system. Hospitals and direct care providers are already challenged by workforce shortages in Maine, and the situation becomes more complicated if a staffer needs to leave work because they are exposed to the virus or contract it. University of Maine students recently began providing aid in the Bangor, Fort Kent and Gorham areas.

The administration of Gov. Janet Mills last week signed a $670,000 deal through June with a Chicago staffing agency to create a response team of 10 nurses to send to facilities facing “significant challenges” due to the pandemic, according to a late January document.

The state billed the move to Rick Erb, the president of the Maine Health Care Association, as a last resort for facilities that are in a crisis. Homes will have to demonstrate to the state they have made efforts to fix staffing levels before the response team will help them. Staffing levels at many facilities are “serious,” he said, with outbreaks causing more challenges.

“We’ve been seeing for the last year how [staffing] has been that much harder,” he said.

They are hampered by a health care workforce shortage that has long been identified as a problem in Maine, the oldest state by median age. Past estimates have suggested the state will be short 3,200 nurses by 2025 and would need 120 more primary care physicians to maintain the same rate of health care use by 2030.

The news comes as state officials signaled they are looking to hire more staff to coordinate vaccination efforts. They have been working to identify sites that can administer hundreds of doses per day, including York County’s first vaccination site, expected to open this month in Sanford.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah told lawmakers on the Legislature’s health panel on Wednesday that one of his “wish list” items is to have more vaccinators to speed the process, along with people who can provide logistical support. Those positions were not among the investigative, contact tracing and epidemiology jobs the Maine CDC was advertising on Wednesday.

“Someone who got their start at Southwest Airlines checking people in, and then maybe worked at Disney for a couple of years, and then spent some time at FedEx,” said Shah, describing the ideal candidates. “If you happen to know folks like that, who are looking for a job in Maine, let me know because I would love them to operate some of our sites.”