A Walmart employee prepares to administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a Walmart in the Austin neighborhood, of Chicago, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Credit: Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Mainers aged 70 and over will be able sign up to receive COVID-19 vaccines at 24 Walmart and Sam’s Club locations beginning later this week, a top state health official said Tuesday.

The state is expecting between 4,400 and 4,800 vaccines per week for distribution via these two chains as part of the federal government’s retail pharmacy program, said Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That supply is in addition to roughly 20,000 vaccines per week Maine is expecting to receive directly in the next few weeks.

The new federal program was announced last week and aims to begin administering vaccines on Thursday. States are relying on different pharmacies, though nearly two dozen are using Walmart as an initial partner, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The program could extend to independent pharmacies in the future and it would not trade off with vaccines that the state allocates to health care providers or for distribution in long-term care facilities, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.

“We don’t envision that our participation in this federal program via Walmart will affect what happens to other recipients of vaccines in the state,” Shah said.

As of Tuesday, Maine has administered more than 200,000 total vaccine doses, including 145,000 first doses. Demand has continued to outstrip supply, with appointments for Mainers age 70 and up filling up quickly.

Under the retail pharmacy program, Mainers who are eligible for vaccines will be able to sign up for an appointment online beginning tonight, with appointments available as soon as Friday, Lambrew said. Neither store’s website listed locations in Maine as of Tuesday afternoon, though Lambrew said they would target areas underserved by current health care infrastructure.

It is unclear if Walmart is hiring additional pharmacists in Maine. Joe Bruno, CEO of Community Pharmacies, an Augusta-based chain with nine employees, said he was giving vaccinations at his company’s Gorham location on Tuesday because pharmacists were busy filling prescriptions and said chains will be challenged by high demand.

“If you don’t understand the demand, you are going to get overwhelmed,” he said.

Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.