Liz Round (right), a nursing student at the University of Maine, gives Libby Ranco of Alton a vaccination card after Ranco got her first COVID-19 vaccine dose at Penobscot Valley Health Center in Bangor on Feb. 4, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

More than a dozen smaller health centers in Maine are receiving a collective $41 million to support COVID-19 vaccination, testing and treatment efforts, which officials say will help them reach a wide group of vulnerable people as the state accelerates its vaccine rollout.

The aid for 18 Maine providers comes as part of a $10 billion for Federally Qualified Health Centers across the U.S. that passed as part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package earlier this month. Community health centers, which predominantly serve seniors and low-income people, have been key to Maine’s early vaccine rollout in rural areas, helping reach patients not served by any of the state’s half dozen mass vaccination sites.

It is a massive infusion. The Bangor-based Penobscot Community Health Care — the largest one of these centers in Maine serving about 65,000 people — will get $10.6 million while operating on an $85 million annual budget. Others will get between $750,000 and $4.7 million.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District who voted for the $1.9 trillion bill, applauded the funding on Thursday, saying the quick distribution would make a “world of difference” in underserved areas of the state.

In Bangor, the funding will help boost ongoing vaccine equity efforts, said Lori Dwyer, CEO of Penobscot Community Health Care. She pointed to the health center’s work on initiatives that target marginalized populations but are more costly, such as bringing vaccines to low-income senior housing facilities and the homes of individuals who lack mobility.

“This funding that we’ve received will really allow us to weather the ebbs and flows, and, when we have to, step up and build capacity,” Dwyer said.

In addition to announcing the new funding on Thursday, President Joe Biden’s administration extended vaccine eligibility at community health centers, saying providers participating in a federal program were “invited” to expand eligibility to “frontline essential workers and all persons 16 years and older with high-risk medical conditions.”

But only a few of Maine’s Federally Qualified Health Centers — including Penobscot Community Health Care and the Waterville-based Healthreach Community Health Centers — are currently participating in that program, which allows them to get vaccines directly from the federal government rather than through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. More are set to join in the coming weeks.

Maine’s current vaccine eligibility criteria does not make any exceptions based on pre-existing health conditions for people under the age of 50, although the state extended eligibility to teachers earlier this month after a directive from Biden. All Maine adults will become eligible for the vaccine on April 19.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, declined to comment on the potential for expanded eligibility on Thursday, saying he had yet to see the official policy from the federal agency overseeing community health centers.

Dwyer said Penobscot Community Health Care was still evaluating next steps after only just learning of the potential to expand eligibility. With the hospital’s recent allocations of about 1,000 doses per week from the federal government, she said there were still many patients 60 and older who need to be vaccinated and would be a priority before younger people with health conditions or working in frontline jobs.

“Philosophically, the idea of getting to everyone who has high-risk medical conditions makes sense, and it’s something we will work towards,” she said. “But we also need to understand that we’re operating in an environment of scarcity.”