Public Health Notebook: Vaccines arrive in Maine, but the battle against COVID-19 remains far from over

The director of the state’s CDC warns that there’s no fairytale ending, that the pandemic won’t simply be flipped off like a light switch.
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a Maine Health nurse.
Maine Medical Center nurse Kayla Mitchell was the first in the state to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination. Photo courtesy of MaineHealth.

December has been a month of hope and concern, with COVID-19 vaccines deployed for the first time to hospitals across Maine but health officials warned that the state continues to battle “a surge on top of a surge.”

Hospitals this week received the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine and began inoculating frontline workers. The first phase of vaccinations focuses on healthcare workers in intensive care units, emergency rooms and COVID-19 wings of hospitals. 

Health officials said the arrival of the vaccine is welcome but warned that the virus rages on. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention this month opened at least 84 investigations into new outbreaks across the state (see below).

“The arrival of this vaccine in Maine represents a light at the end of the tunnel. But even when you see the light …  it’s important to remember that you’re still in a tunnel and blue skies remain a ways away,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.

Even before the vaccine was approved for emergency use in the U.S., Shah warned it wouldn’t end the pandemic like flipping off a light switch. “It’s not like a fairytale ending,” he said.

“Good public health habits,” such as social distancing and wearing a mask, still will be necessary, he said, especially because the vaccine is most effective in communities where the pandemic is under control.

“The better we get control of the virus today, the more success we will have with the vaccine tomorrow, the next week and the next month,” Shah said. “We all want a return to normal. We all want the economy and our schools to be open. And we all want to protect our family and friends from the pandemic. The bottom line is that the better we do now, the better we will all do later.”

As of Dec. 18, 177 Mainers were hospitalized with COVID-19 and a total of 281 had died. One Mainer who died this month was a man in his 100s.  

Alarmed at the number of hospitalizations, representatives from the state’s three major hospitals on Dec. 9 pleaded with the public to socially distance, wash their hands and wear masks.

Shah said the virus is so widespread across the state that chains of transmission have become blurry.

“Initially in COVID-19 across the country it was a series of straight lines, dots that we could connect. Now it’s a bowl of spaghetti,” Shah said. “Community transmission by its definition means that individuals are being infected but are not able to pinpoint where their source of infection was.”

Outbreaks in Maine

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has opened at least 84 investigations into new outbreaks across the state this month.

Here are the outbreaks reported in December:

  • Landing at Cape Elizabeth
  • Biddeford Intermediate school
  • Country Village in Casco
  • Blueprints Learning Center in Lebanon
  • Sanford High School
  • Community Living Association in Houlton
  • Half Pints Preschool & Daycare Center in Waterville
  • Loving Touch In-Home Care in Bangor
  • Presque Isle Rehab & Nursing
  • Spectrum Augusta 
  • Northern Light Acadia Hospital
  • Biddeford High School
  • Biddeford Primary School
  • Cumberland County District Attorney Office
  • Greely High School in Cumberland
  • Shaw House Geriatric Care in York
  • St. Joseph Rehab in Portland
  • York Middle School
  • Capital Judicial Center in Augusta
  • Business office of CN Brown in Paris
  • Freightliner of Maine
  • Market Square Health Care Center in South Paris
  • Southridge Rehab in Biddeford
  • Spruce Mountain Elementary School in Jay
  • Baker Company in Sanford
  • Dirigo Middle School in Dixfield
  • Fruit Street School in Bangor
  • Loranger Memorial School in Old Orchard Beach
  • Nichols Portland in Portland
  • Noble High School in North Berwick
  • Washburn & Doughty Associates Inc. in East Boothbay
  • York High School
  • Lakeview Terrace in Lincoln
  • Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton
  • Enterprise Car Rental
  • Pinnacle Health & Rehab in North Berwick
  • Seal Rock Healthcare in Saco
  • Windham Middle School
  • Lewiston Police Department
  • York Hospital
  • McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston 
  • Otter Brook Child Care in Fairfield
  • Presque Isle High School
  • Sacopee Valley Elementary School
  • Security System Services
  • Toddle Inn in Gorham
  • Enclave of Scarborough
  • Gardiner Area High School
  • Zippel Elementary School in Presque Isle
  • Inn At Village Square in Gorham
  • Noble Middle School in Berwick 
  • Seaside Rehab and Healthcare in Portland 
  • Toddle Inn Child Care in Scarborough
  • Whitney Energy in Lincoln
  • Bonny Eagle High School
  • Gorham Middle School
  • Old Orchard Beach High School
  • Vassalboro Middle School
  • Stetson Memorial Church in Patten
  • Benton Elementary School in Benton
  • Ross Manor in Bangor
  • Cut Loose salon in Norway
  • Dirigo Elementary School in Peru
  • Falmouth Elementary School
  • Gilbert’s Chowder House in Windham
  • Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton
  • Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland
  • Cumberland County Jail
  • Eye Care Maine
  • Newport town office
  • Songo Locks School in Naples
  • Springbrook Center in Westbrook
  • Biddeford Middle School
  • Eastern Maine Medical Center
  • Freightliner of Maine in Westbrook
  • Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston
  • Pine Point Center in Scarborough
  • Woodland Pulp in Baileyville
  • Maine Veterans’ Homes in Scarborough
  • Sacopee Valley Middle School in Hiram
  • Waynflete Upper School in Portland
  • Lewiston High School (reopened outbreak)
  • Lewiston Middle School (reopened outbreak)
  • Paris Elementary School in South Paris (reopened outbreak)
  • York High School (reopened outbreak)

Rising national trust in vaccine

Trust in the COVID-19 vaccine is rising nationally. About six in 10 Americans said they would be willing to get vaccinated  — an increase from about 51 percent in September, according to a survey published this month by the Pew Research Center.

About 39 percent of Americans said they definitely or probably won’t take the vaccine. Roughly half of this group said new information may change their mind. But about a fifth of Americans said they aren’t planning to take the vaccine and are “pretty certain” new information wouldn’t change their mind.

“Partisanship plays a role in many of these beliefs and practices,” according to the report. “Overall, there’s a 19-point gap between the shares of Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party (69 percent), and Republicans and Republican leaners (50 percent) who currently say they would get vaccinated for the coronavirus.”

The Pew Research Center surveyed 12,648 American adults between Nov. 18 and 29.

The survey also found that 71 percent think the worst of the pandemic is ahead, an increase from 59 percent in June.

More than half of those surveyed said they know someone who was hospitalized or died due to COVID-19. And 71 percent of Black Americans said they know someone who was hospitalized or died.

Here are some of the other findings:

  • About 72 percent said it bothers them when people in public do not wear masks while 28 percent said it bothers them when stores require masks.
  • Three out of four survey respondents said they are comfortable going to the grocery store but most would be uncomfortable attending a crowded party.
  • About 84 percent of the Democrats and 43 percent of the Republicans said the coronavirus outbreak is “a major threat to the U.S. population as a whole,” whereas 86 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of Republicans said the outbreak is a threat to the economy.
  • Roughly four in 10 Americans said they have “a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest.” This represents an increase from about 35 percent before the pandemic. But the responses have grown more partisan with 55 percent of Democrats saying they have a great deal of confidence compared to only 22 percent of Republicans.

In case you missed it

Businesses that received loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program to continue operating during the pandemic are running out of money and worrying about surviving the winter, Jessica Piper reported on Dec. 14 for the Bangor Daily News. 

“It’s kind of just like treading water and hoping that the bills that do need to get paid, get paid, and that we don’t run out of funding at some point,” one business owner said.

Several Maine colleges and universities are lending ultra-cold freezers to hospitals around the state to store doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but some initially had to keep that information confidential for security reasons, Kelley Bouchard reported on Dec. 10 for the Portland Press Herald.

“I started calling it Operation Penguin,” Karen Houseknecht, a pharmacology professor and associate provost for research at the University of New England, told the Press Herald. “I had to tell a couple people, and they were sworn to secrecy.”

Maine Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, reached its highest hospitalizations on Dec. 10 with 40  COVID-19 patients admitted, Colin Woodard reported in the Press Herald.

Robert Deeley, the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Portland, said he supports the COVID-19 vaccine and called on everyone to get vaccinated, according to The Associated Press.


Rose Lundy

Rose Lundy covers public health for The Maine Monitor. She is a 2020 Report for America corps member, and a 2022 ProPublica Local Reporting Network fellow. Rose previously covered politics and local government at The Daily News in southwest Washington. She grew up in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Wisconsin.
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