Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 52,000 Maine teachers and child care providers are newly eligible for COVID-19 vaccines after Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that the state would align its vaccination program with a recent federal directive.

Maine was in the minority of states not prioritizing vaccinations for teachers after the state switched to an age-based vaccine plan last week. The state planned to set up special clinics for teachers, but still only those already in an eligible age category would be able to get vaccinated.

But President Joe Biden said late Tuesday that he was instructing states to offer vaccinations to educators, with a goal of getting at least one dose to every teacher and child care provider by the end of March.

“Based on the President’s directive, we are updating our plan today to make school staff and child care workers eligible,” Mills said in a statement. “We will continue to work day and night with our health care providers to get shots into as many arms as possible, as quickly as possible, focusing our efforts on those most at risk of dying if they contract the virus.”

Eligible employees include workers including teachers, support staff and bus drivers at preschools and K-12 schools, as well as those who work for licensed child care providers. Higher education employees are not included.

Pharmacies are supposed to offer vaccines exclusively to educators moving forward, the state said, though they should not cancel already scheduled appointments for older Mainers. Teachers should look for appointments at pharmacies first, the Democratic governor said, though other vaccine clinics may also accept appointments from teachers when they are able.

The decision is largely in response to national political pressure. Schools have not been a major source of virus transmission in Maine, with a case rate among staff and students less than one-third of that in the general population over the past month. Federal health officials said last month that vaccinating teachers should not be a prerequisite to reopening schools. 

Most Maine schools have been offering some in-person instruction this year as case rates here have remained much lower than nationally. The state has largely avoided thorny political debates over reopening schools before widespread vaccination as a result of that.

The Maine Education Association, the state’s major teachers’ union, initially backed Mills’ governor’s age-only vaccine plan, citing the state’s commitment to helping older teachers get vaccinated. But it later backtracked, saying all teachers should be able to get the vaccine due to concerns about younger teachers with high-risk medical conditions.

Several other states, including Massachusetts, also announced Wednesday that they would begin vaccinating teachers after Biden’s directive.

Whether vaccines for educators will delay the rest of Maine’s timeline is unclear. Mainers aged 60 and older began receiving shots on Wednesday after the state received more than 55,000 new first doses this week. Mills previously said she hoped the state would extend eligibility to those in their 50s in April, and said Wednesday that she was waiting on the Biden administration for more information on the size of Maine’s future vaccine allocations.

Maine expects to get fewer doses next week as it will not immediately receive additional Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But Biden indicated Tuesday that he expects vaccine supply to increase dramatically in the coming months after working with another pharmaceutical company to increase production of the one-shot vaccine, with enough doses for all American adults to get vaccinated by the end of May.