Feb. 28—Many Maine seniors living in independent living apartments can't drive or easily get a ride to a COVID-19 vaccination site. Others might find it challenging to navigate online registration or deal with an automated call center line.
The Maine Immunization Program, part of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has launched a system so these seniors don't get overlooked, and the program is expanding further this week.
The state is partnering with independent pharmacies, paramedics and other health care providers to bring vaccines directly to independent living communities whose residents were originally included, but then dropped, from a federal pharmacy program included in the first phase of Maine's vaccination plan. Vaccinators will be fanning out to 69 locations giving about 600 doses this week, according to a spreadsheet provided by the Maine CDC. Until now, the immunization clinics were for residents 70 and older, but starting this week under Maine's new age-based vaccination system, those 60 and older living in the senior housing will be eligible to get a shot.
For seniors like Millie Hawkins, 101, who lives at Millbrook Estates senior living in Westbrook, having a clinic set up at her apartment complex made getting immunized easy.
"I would have had to hire someone to take me, and I don't like to do that unless it's an emergency," Hawkins said. She also said she doesn't want to "bother" relatives to give her a ride to places.
Residents of independent living communities had been included in a federal partnership with the pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS that has been conducting clinics for residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. But those independent living facilities were dropped from the program by January before it started up, creating a gap for older Mainers,
Richard Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities in Maine, said while it's unclear how many independent living centers there are in Maine because they are not licensed like nursing homes and assisted living centers, many thousands live in these facilities.
"We shouldn't get too hung up on the term independent living. They are elderly. They may be getting some services delivered to them in their apartments," Erb said. "They are not as independent as the general public."
Hawkins said she was glad when someone gave her her first shot in mid-February, with her second dose happening in about two weeks.
"The nurse showed up and gave me a shot," said Hawkins, although she's somewhat nervous about side effects from the second dose. "I'll be happy if it works good."
Experts in senior housing say mobility, transportation and being able to navigate systems are common obstacles for seniors living at independent living facilities.
Michelle York, supportive services director for Westbrook Housing, said they have hosted several clinics at their senior independent living facilities, and vaccinated 310 residents through Friday, with Northern Light Health conducting the clinics. York said they walk the seniors through the process.
"We call the residents beforehand to help them fill out the forms and schedule an appointment, and then slip a piece of paper under their door with a reminder for when their appointment is," she said.
Sometimes, they will hold a vaccine clinic at one residential building but offer access to residents of nearby buildings if they are within walking distance. Westbrook Housing's senior living is a mix of affordable housing, market rentals and low-income housing.
At Avesta Housing, which operates about 50 independent senior living facilities in Maine and New Hampshire, the Maine vaccination program has recently started, and more than 1,000 seniors will soon be getting their shots, said Sara Olson, director of development and communication for Avesta.
"We were very eager to join this program. It is a lot more realistic to get this population vaccinated if you are bringing it to them," Olson said. "Many times they don't have access to transportation, they don't drive or don't own a car."
The program is especially important in rural Maine in light of the fact that smaller physician practices and primary care doctors have not been included in vaccine distribution. After weeks of negotiations with medical associations, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services recently began accepting applications from smaller medical practices that are interested in jointly offering vaccination clinics.
But to be eligible, these "community-based collaboratives" must commit to administering at least 1,000 vaccine shots per week. Many doctors say that high bar effectively excludes them from vaccinating older and eligible patients, many of whom would prefer to get a shot from their local doctor than travel to a mass-vaccination clinic in Scarborough or Bangor.
Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said the agency is evaluating the needs of the program in about 200 communities across Maine. He said independent pharmacies, paramedics and public health nurses have taken on many of the immunization clinics at independent living facilities. At nursing homes and assisted living centers, it was Walgreens, CVS and independent pharmacies.
According to the U.S. CDC, 35,311 doses have been given to residents and staff at long-term care facilities in Maine, including 22,730 people who have received at least the first dose. Through Friday, a total of 217,667 Maine people had received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Of those, 118,693, 54 percent, were 70 and older. So despite Maine starting to vaccinate those 60 and older beginning this week, nearly half of Maine's 70 and older residents still need to be vaccinated.
Amelia Arnold, pharmacy operations manager at Community Pharmacy, one of the independent pharmacy chains that is participating, said many of the senior housing apartments are in small buildings. This week, Community Pharmacy will be administering about 200 shots across nine different senior housing places.
Arnold said Community Pharmacy has more capacity to conduct more immunization clinics when vaccine supplies increase, which is likely with the approval of a third vaccine by Johnson & Johnson. Arnold said independent pharmacies could not only ramp up efforts to immunize seniors in independent living facilities, but also vaccinate people who come to the pharmacy looking for shots. Currently, Walgreens, Walmart and Sam's Club are the only pharmacies in Maine that offer vaccinations as part of the federal retail pharmacy program.
"We're in a lot of small towns across the the state, so as the vaccine becomes more available, we could make a difference vaccinating small communities," Arnold said. "We are anxious to contribute more to the solution. We have so much more to give."