The coronavirus vaccine is so scarce that a disparate group of interests from Maine’s top judge to groups representing HVAC workers and newspapers have lobbied Gov. Janet Mills’ office to grant priority access to frontline workers and others seen as vulnerable.
Emails and letters to the Democratic governor’s office provided to the Bangor Daily News under the Freedom of Access Act show the breadth of lobbying surrounding priority for the vaccine, which has remained constrained since the program began in mid-December.
More than 65 people or groups representing hospitality, transportation, food sanitization, chemicals manufacturers and organ donor services reached out to the Mills’ administration from early December to mid January, according to the documents. Tim Feeley, a Mills attorney, said the documents provided are just a small portion of the 700 emails and letters the governor received from constituents about vaccination efforts in the time frame.
They provide a unique look into how broad constituencies can make reasonable cases for limited vaccines and the tough distinctions policymakers face as they try to get doses out both quickly and equitably. For now, vaccines are largely limited to Mainers over 70, health care workers, first responders and residents and employees of long-term care facilities.
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Dozens of industry groups joined state and federal government agencies including the Border Patrol and Department of Agriculture, individual businesses and lawmakers. Maine-based businesses including the personal care brand Tom’s of Maine also chimed in. Some argue their employees cannot work from home or are critical and thus need priority. Others seek clarification on where certain categories of workers might fall.
“We are doing everything we can to keep the courts open and functioning at their maximum capacities through the end of the [pandemic] and this would certainly help,” wrote Andrew Mead, the acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, in a Dec. 5 letter requesting clerks and judicial marshals be vaccinated after health care workers.
It is not clear how successful all of the groups’ efforts have been, since priority discussions have not been public. The state has said Mills makes those decisions based on advice from health officials, but interest groups have indicated frustration at a lack of clarity around who will be included in upcoming vaccinations for frontline workers. Marshals are eligible now, while clerks are believed to be eligible in a later part of this phase, said court spokesperson Amy Quinlan.
Mills has said the state is prioritizing vaccines based on vaccine availability and how likely populations are to be seriously affected by the virus or how closely they work with sick populations. The governor takes input seriously in her decisions, but her decisions ultimately depend on “the best interests of Maine people,” said spokesperson Lindsay Crete.
Elizabeth Ward Saxl, the executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, wanted a better understanding of where her employees who provide in-person services, such as support during interviews and hospital visits and family advocacy, fell into the timeline when she reached out to the state early last month.
Those groups are small, but Saxl felt they would fit into the current phase. The Department of Health and Human Services responded with a familiar refrain: The state was working through its health care workers and was constrained by supply.
“I took it to mean they did not view us as health care workers,” Saxl said in an interview, adding that she did not expect that and she still does not know where her employees fall.
Some efforts were at least initially successful. Ski patrol members were authorized to receive vaccines last week after the Ski Maine Association and prominent lobbyist Severin Beliveau, who has represented the former Saddleback Mountain ski area owners, emailed the governor on their behalf. The state reversed its decision Wednesday amid scrutiny over priorities.
Others representing health care jobs like home care employees, plasma donation center employees, organ donor services and equipment manufacturers pressed for priority, according to the documents. Interest and advocacy groups made up over half of the provided requests, but many individuals also made cases for their workers. The Maine Press Association, which represents newspapers including the Bangor Daily News, asked for production employees to be prioritized alongside journalists when they are allowed to be vaccinated.
Terry Morrison, a former Democratic state representative who manages the Inn at St. John in Portland, reached out last month to argue for hospitality workers. They are not explicitly named in the state’s plan, but some may fall into Phase 1C, which includes food service workers.
Morrison told Mills his business has lost over $800,000 in revenue due to the pandemic. The hotel has been careful to follow COVID-19 protocols for hotels, but he said vaccination priority would help it survive another difficult season. He figured Mills would respond since the two served together in the Legislature. He never heard back, which disappointed him.
“I just feel that for following the rules and doing what is asked of me, we should deserve a response,” Morrison said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.