Zach Hefferen took his father Peter to the Walgreens in Windham to get his booster shot earlier this week. The 77-year-old had come under Zach’s care two weeks before, and he wanted to ensure that his father had the added protection of a Johnson & Johnson booster shot.
But when the pair arrived at the pharmacy, they were told that no booster shots were available. Now, his father won’t get a booster until the end of December, the earliest available appointment, Zach Hefferen said.
“It was frustrating, but, you know, what are you going to do?” he said. “We just continue to be as cautious as we can be.”
Maine has the sixth highest rate in the nation of fully vaccinated adults receiving boosters, at 31 percent, but many are reporting difficulty getting the shot, especially after the emergence of the omicron variant sent shockwaves throughout the state.
Demand had already heightened after the recent expansion of eligibility for boosters to all adults who received their final dose at least six months ago. Many recently have seen their appointments canceled, while others can only secure appointments weeks away or at locations that require long drives from their homes.
The retail pharmacies that are struggling to deliver shots are likely experiencing a combination of a shortage of pharmacists and increased booster demand, Northern Light Pharmacy Vice President Matt Marston said.
“I think an increase in demand coupled with the declining availability at some of these locations has created a supply-and-demand issue,” Marston said.
Northern Light Health is offering boosters across half a dozen pharmacies in the Bangor and Portland areas. Marston said the health system has not seen the staffing shortages other pharmacy chains have experienced. Northern Light also offers shots at physician practices, with some holding publicized clinics on weekends.
While demand for boosters is not overwhelming, it has certainly risen over the last couple of weeks, Marston said. Volume had increased by 11 percent over the last week, he said, beginning around when the World Health Organization named omicron and designated it a variant of concern on Friday, Nov. 26.
“I would say it’s definitely higher than it has been over the last couple of weeks,” Marston said. “But, it’s not like back when mass vaccination happened, and we had the initial vaccine rollout.”
Northern Light’s mass vaccination clinics, including one at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor that many praised for its efficiency, played a significant role in delivering Mainers’ first COVID-19 vaccine shots. However, there are no plans to replicate those sites for boosters, at least not at the scale seen at the Cross Insurance Center, Northern Light spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said.
State health officials said Wednesday that there should be news in the coming weeks about improving access to booster shots.
“We recognize that there have been anecdotal reports of folks facing challenges,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said. “When we hear about those challenges…we try to jump on that and see what we can do.”
Shah contacted Walgreens about recent cancellations to ask if they were due to a supply constraint that the Maine CDC could address. The company told him it was due to staffing, Shah said.
“We’re working with them to examine more of what can be done,” Shah said.
He noted that pharmacies aren’t the only channel for delivering boosters, and he rejected the idea that they were the primary source of the booster rollout. Larger clinics such as one at the Auburn Mall and primary care offices are also delivering the shots, he said.
“Pharmacies are important, but they are not the only game,” Shah said.
Workloads have increased for pharmacies throughout the pandemic, as they have performed COVID tests and vaccinations while maintaining their non-coronavirus services, said Amy Downing, executive director of the Maine Pharmacy Association.
Pharmacists across the state have told Downing they are more than willing to perform vaccinations, but the added responsibility has forced them to make difficult decisions about how much more work they can take on — whether that work is delivering boosters or shots for newly eligible 5- to 11-year-olds.
The pandemic has also led to burnout among many pharmacists, as it has for many others in medical professions, Downing said. The most significant staffing shortage is among pharmacy technicians, who perform several roles under pharmacists’ supervision, she said.
“I have some community pharmacies on the coast of Maine that are literally a father and daughter,” Downing said. “They have to think about what we can do, because we can’t do it all.”
Mainers have taken to social media to vent about their struggle to get the booster.
Greg Smaligo, 28, of Waterville had a booster and flu shot scheduled at a Walgreens for 1 p.m. on Wednesday, but an employee called him beforehand telling him the pharmacy was closed. He was able to reschedule his appointment for Friday.
“It didn’t make much sense to me that they would be closed during the middle of the day,” Smaligo said.
Reasons for cancellations can vary.
A Walgreens employee told the Hefferens that the store had canceled all vaccine appointments after a fire at a distributor’s building. The woman told him to go to a local Walmart pharmacy for a walk-in appointment. They did so, but none were available, Zach Hefferen said.
An employee at the Windham pharmacy attributed the lack of vaccine shots Tuesday to a fire at an Auburn distributor when the BDN called.
Walgreens did not respond to multiple questions about the fire. A battalion chief at the Auburn Fire Department said the last structure fire in the city was at a Walgreens on Nov. 23 — a suspected arson. It is unclear if that fire — which occurred a week before the Hefferens visited the pharmacy — was the reason no shots were available.
A Walgreens corporate spokesperson said the company was continuously reviewing staff levels at pharmacies to meet pandemic needs amid a national labor shortage. The chain’s locations are continuing to adjust scheduling and appointment availability amid that shortage, the spokesperson said.
“Demand for these services continues to be high over the next two weeks due to a number of factors and appointment availability varies regionally,” the spokesperson said.
No matter the reason, it is encouraging to see increasing demand for the booster dose, Marston said.
He expects people to continue to receive boosters, especially as they hear more about the possibility of breakthrough infections without them and more information trickles out about the omicron variant.
“There was a need before the omicron variant,” Marston said. “Having that new variant introduced just highlights that need even more.”