A woman walks past the former Scarborough Downs horse racing track, where MaineHealth set up a 30,000 square-foot makeshift COVID-19 vaccination clinic, in this Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is discouraging health providers from putting people not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine on waitlists even as some continue to do so in preparation for future phases.

The shift came in a Feb. 8 memo to providers roughly three weeks after the state opened vaccines to Mainers 70 and older, which led to a crush of requests for appointments. Some providers also developed pre-registration lists for ineligible people because of that. At MaineHealth, the state’s largest health provider, 121,000 people are waiting for slots.

State health officials said on Thursday holding off on registering people until they are eligible helps manage expectations, couching it as an effort to maintain trust in the system as supply remains mostly static. But it may bring peace of mind to many and hospitals say keeping a list of interested people helps them gauge vaccine interest and manage requests for appointments.

Shawn Anderson, the CEO of Houlton Regional Hospital, said his staff makes it clear that pre-registration is not the same as signing up for an appointment, citing Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines “chapter and verse” when talking to people.

“We tell them you won’t be hearing from us until we get into your age category,” he said.

Several hospitals listed on the state’s website as offering vaccines to older Mainers appear to also be engaging in the practice. It is not clear how many have stopped doing it since the state’s communication. The Houlton hospital was still maintaining the waitlist as of Thursday.

The state notice arguing against pre-registration said an upcoming vaccine phase for those between the ages of 65 and 69 may be delayed if Maine has difficulty reaching residents over 70 or if the vaccine supply is reduced. It also notes Gov. Janet Mills has not determined which comorbidities and essential workers Maine will include in future phases. Roughly a third of the 193,000 people in that older age group have received first doses, according to state data.

Hospitals developed lists in response to demand. When eligibility expanded in mid-January, Anderson said his hospital got hundreds of daily calls. MaineHealth’s system placed over calls to people who are waiting on Thursday to “reassure them that we have their request and will contact them as soon as possible,” spokesperson Caroline Cornish said.

That prevents people from having to call back constantly, she said. Anderson said it also helps the Houlton hospital prepare for when eligibility opens up. Providers do not know how many doses they will be getting for an upcoming week until a few days before they arrive.

Not every system is taking names. Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for Bangor-based Northern Light Health, said the provider decided early in the process to avoid waitlists. The health system is operating one of the few large-scale clinics in the state at the Cross Insurance Center. She said wait lists can be difficult to manage and confusing for people not already eligible, especially considering the heightened interest in vaccines.

That is what state officials are hoping to avoid, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said Thursday. He said the state wants people signing up to not have to wait long between when they register and get for an appointment, noting some could sign up in multiple locations if they have to wait months for a call back.

“If you’ve got folks that are pre-registering but it could be months upon months before any vaccine is available for their group, it leads to various disconnects,” he said.

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