Thousands streamed into the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Wednesday, the first day that all Mainers 16 and older were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
It was joyous for many: a chance to return to normalcy after the tumult and anxiety of the past year. And the extended eligibility for the shot came sooner than expected. Last week, Gov. Janet Mills moved eligibility for those 16 and older up by nearly two weeks amid a resurgence of cases in Maine and unfilled vaccine slots.
Many people, including Jordan Merchant, 21, of Orono, signed up as soon as they heard Mills’ announcement last week. A University of Maine senior, Merchant hoped that getting inoculated could play a small part in getting her state and university back to normal.
“I’ve missed out on a lot of things,” Merchant said. “I’m a cheerleader, and our season wasn’t normal. I won’t be having a normal graduation.”
While most attendees had come from the Bangor area, the Cross Center’s large number of appointments brought others from as far as York County, where shots have been in high demand. Other towns and cities represented Wednesday included Bath and Bar Harbor.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine currently offered at the Cross Center. The Pfizer shot is one of three approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Jack Bjorn, 27, drove more than two hours from Scarborough to get the shot. He is immunocompromised and wanted to get it on his first day of eligibility, no matter where he had to go.
“It felt very exciting and surreal after a year of waiting for it,” Bjorn said.
Bobbie-Jean Brown, 24, a preschool teacher who lives in Biddeford, received her second shot on Wednesday. Her work has a one-symptom rule, meaning that teachers aren’t allowed to come in if they show any symptoms of COVID-19.
Brown said she was excited for a return to normalcy that would come with getting vaccinated — she’s going to a wedding in a couple of months. She said it gave her hope to see many young people going in with her on their first day of eligibility.
“I’m really glad that we have people my age that are taking a step forward and helping to slow the spread,” Brown said.
Yet even with eligibility extended to younger ages, older people who have been eligible for weeks still represented a significant number of people being inoculated Wednesday morning.
Galen Young, 62, of Argyle, received his first shot on Wednesday, and said his main reason was because it was expected of him. He didn’t see it as especially important.
Sarah Nielson of Cumberland came with her son Nick Signorelli, 17, who was among the younger people to receive a vaccine Wednesday morning. A senior at Freeport High School, Signorelli was looking forward to things getting back to normal and seeing his friends again.
“It’s also kind of cool being one of the first people in your school to get it,” Signorelli said.
Among the most commonly cited reasons for getting vaccinated was the ability to travel overseas, which the COVID-19 pandemic has practically halted.
Derek McKinley, 32, of Hampden, a teacher at Foxcroft Academy, said he had already researched the countries where fully vaccinated people could travel. His top choices were Ecuador and Iceland, which opened to vaccinated American tourists on Tuesday.
Despite the thousands-strong showing at the Cross Center Wednesday, many Mainers continue to be hesitant about receiving the vaccine. Several people said they knew others who were skeptical of the shot, whether co-workers, family members, or friends. They hoped that such skepticism would decline as more Americans receive the vaccine and don’t experience dangerous side effects.
Many at the Cross Center felt differently, seeing the vaccination as a small task to protect themselves and those around them. Sammira Rais-Rohani, 23, of Bangor said she was relieved that she would be able to keep her family safe from the virus, especially because she lived with her parents.
“It’s been a tough year,” Rais-Rohani said. “But it feels like light at the end of the tunnel.”