Jesse Cinquegrano holds her 19-month-old son Wilder Lynch, while her other son, Bastian Lynch, 3, shows off his post-shot bandage, at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Sanford on Thursday, June 23, 2022. The free clinic began vaccinating children under 5 on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

SANFORD, Maine — As her 19-month-old son Wilder Lynch squirmed in her arms, Jesse Cinquegrano tapped her phone and tried to figure out which COVID-19 vaccine would serve her family best.

The Sanford vaccine clinic looked the same as many others, except that the worker in front of the Biddeford mother was using Gary, a stuffed gorilla, to entertain Wilder while explaining the differences between Pfizer and Moderna regimens for children younger than 5.

Pfizer is a three-shot regime with the third dose coming at least two months after the last. Moderna’s two-dose program is finished after a month. Cinquegrano and her partner had gotten the Pfizer shot and initially thought their kids would, too.

But the timing proved important. They chose Moderna for Wilder and his 3-year-old brother, Bastian, looking forward to more normal lives over two years into the pandemic.

“It’s been really tough because I stay at home with them, which is much easier than going to school, but we lost a lot of socialization because of that,” Cinquegrano said.

It is the kind of calculus Maine parents are making during the first week of vaccine availability for kids under 5. Parents who rushed to get children vaccinated this week said the milestone was a relief after a long wait. Yet this rollout will probably be the slowest, with a large number of parents not rushing to get younger children vaccinated.

A man and child sit at a vaccine clinic.
A man and child sit under a banner at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Sanford on Thursday, June 23, 2022. The free clinic began vaccinating children under 5 on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Sanford clinic, run by the York County Emergency Management Agency, is a unique scene at this stage of the pandemic. It is the last mass vaccination clinic open in Maine, occupying a former Marshalls store in a shopping plaza.

Most younger children are expected to get vaccinated at pediatricians’ offices, but that requires appointments. Maine’s second-largest health provider, Brewer-based Northern Light Health, is not offering vaccines to the youngest population until next week. A mix of state laws and company policies also keeps many pharmacies from vaccinating kids under 3.

So interest in the clinic has been high in the first few days, said Megan Arsenault, the deputy director of York County EMA. It primarily has served York County residents, but she said people from New Hampshire and even north of Bangor have made the trip.

The agency staffs the clinic with pediatricians able to answer parents’ questions. One corner is dedicated to coloring books. Chairs are set up in front of a TV, from which the sounds of Disney’s “Encanto” can be heard from the booths where shots were administered. A table piled with stuffed animals awaits kids after getting shots, and space was set aside for nursing parents. Most of the crowd was accompanied by young children, but a few adults got boosters.

“We have seen tears on Tuesday and again today, and not tears from little ones, but tears from parents,” Arsenault said. “Tears of joy and gratitude.”

Despite that interest, state figures showed the effort was off to a slow start. Only 178 first doses had been administered by Wednesday. The state has enough doses to vaccinate 40 percent of the under-5 population, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on a Thursday visit to the clinic.

Vaccine uptake has been slower in Maine and across the country among younger populations so far. National polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation found in early May that 1 in 5 parents want to get their child under 5 vaccinated as soon as possible, while nearly 2 in 5 percent said they will wait. Another quarter said they definitely would not.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, speaks at a vaccine clinic.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, speaks with reporters at a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a Sanford shopping plaza on Thursday afternoon, June 23, 2022. The walk-in clinic, run by the York County Emergency Management Agency, is the last of its kind in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Shah stressed that it is OK if parents take time in getting children vaccinated. He said numbers are likely to tick up as more pediatricians — some of whom may have not had to order COVID-19 vaccines yet — see interest from parents as the year goes on.

“The younger you get down the chain, the less of an emergency [getting vaccinated] becomes,” Shah said. “It’s an important thing, it’s urgent, but it’s not an emergency.”

For many of the state’s youngest children, life during the pandemic has been the same since March 2020, said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, the incoming president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. While young children may not get very sick in most cases from the virus, parents have had to consider risks associated with events or daycare.

“The rest of us who feel the protection of the vaccine have been able to move on,” she said. “Parents of younger children have been holding their breath.”