A pharmacy technician loads a syringe with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at a mass vaccination site at the Portland Expo in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Younger Mainers eager for a COVID-19 vaccine have gotten one by directly contacting local pharmacies about extra doses, even though the state’s general adult population will not be eligible for the vaccines for nearly another month.

The practice is blessed by Maine health officials, who are advising providers to give leftover vaccines to eligible people first but say the most important thing is that no doses go unused. Mainers in their 50s became eligible on Tuesday. Teachers and child care providers are also eligible. Maine is one of a handful of states that has not prioritized younger people with pre-existing health conditions and will open vaccines to all adults on April 19.

To avoid wasting doses, some of Maine’s more than 150 vaccine providers — including some Walmart and Walgreens locations — have accepted last-minute appointments from Mainers under age 50 or turned to so-called “waste lists,” or lists of people they can call at the last minute to prevent vaccines from going to waste.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said there was “nothing untoward” about pharmacies giving vaccines to younger Mainers if the doses were going to expire and there were no eligible people to give them to. Maine’s vaccination policy calls for ensuring every dose is used “even if that means occasional deviations” from the state’s plan, according to a Maine CDC document.

“As a result of that, we have had very, very few doses in Maine that have gone unused,” Shah said.

It’s unclear how common the practice is, but a Bangor Daily News reporter called 10 retail pharmacies Tuesday morning to ask if a person not eligible for a vaccine under state criteria could get an appointment. One offered an appointment. Four said they had none available but might at another time or offered spots on a waiting list. Five others said they were not offering appointments or spots on a list.

Individual pharmacies are generally vaccinating fewer people each day than larger hospital sites. They can end up with extra doses if appointments are canceled or if they host a clinic aimed at a specific population — such as a senior living facility — and fewer people want vaccines than expected.

A spokesperson for Northern Light Health, which operates nearly a dozen clinics including the mass vaccination site at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, said the hospital system rarely has more than two or three doses at the end of each day. The extra doses are offered to site volunteers based on age.

As Maine’s vaccination system has relied largely on age, two thirds of people aged 60 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, Shah said Tuesday. More than 590,000 doses have been administered in total. Mainers under the age of 50 can also pre-register on a new state website or by contacting some hospitals.