Cathleen Abate, left, a registered nurse at Stephens Memorial Hospital, was the first employee to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Fellow RN Erin Olmstead administered the shot. Submitted photo

NORWAY — With shipments of COVID-19 vaccines arriving in Maine, Stephens Memorial Hospital administered the first vaccinations for COVID-19 to its front-line caregivers on Dec. 22. At noon, RN Cathleen Abate became the first care team member at SMH to receive the vaccine.

“I feel very fortunate the vaccine is here and I am able to receive it. Getting vaccinated gives me a feeling of comfort,” said Abate.  “This is an opportunity to help keep my family, our patients and community safe.”

Abate is among the first wave of SMH caregivers to be vaccinated. The Moderna vaccine being used was approved by the Food and Drug Administration’s expert panel last week. The Pfizer vaccine is also being utilized by MaineHealth.

“Following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are vaccinating our care teams so that we can continue to care for those who become ill,” said Greg Hardy, MD, Chief Medical Officer at SMH. “At the same time, we are also working on plans for vaccine distribution among our patients. State and federal guidance for which patients should be prioritized for vaccine is evolving. We stand ready to offer vaccine to our patients who meet the criteria when the CDC guidance is finalized and when we have vaccine for that purpose.”

In anticipation of the process MaineHealth formed a system-wide task force with clinicians from all nine of its health systems to oversee distribution to frontline medical workers. The task force has set up vaccine clinics through all of its facilities to vaccinate staff as quickly as possible.

“By having our care team protected against COVID-19, we can better assure that we will be ready to treat, not just those suffering with COVID, but everyone who needs care during this time,” said Dora Mills, MD, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer. It will take several weeks to vaccinate all eligible team members.

Aside from the logistics of storing and transporting the vaccines from Pfizer that require ultra-cold storage, the biggest hurdle to overcome is finding doctors and nurses to staff the vaccine clinics. MaineHealth has been actively recruiting for the clinics for several weeks; among those recruited to provide vaccinations are retired doctors and nurses who have volunteered to help in the effort.

“It’s a credit to our teams across the system that they were able to come together so quickly and get shots in arms within hours of the arrival of the vaccine,” said Mills. “This effort speaks to how critically important this vaccine is to maintaining our readiness to help our communities through this pandemic.”

As it goes through the long process of vaccinating its thousands of employees, MaineHealth will maintain all safety measures, including the use of personal protective equipment, extra cleaning of surfaces, segregation of patients known or suspected of having COVID-19 and daily screening for symptoms of all employees.

Next up: long-term care facilities

Market Square Health Care Center will start vaccinating its more than 200 staff and residents starting Jan. 12. using the Moderna vaccine, according to Administrator Joel Rogers.

The Maine Center for Disease Control is coordinating distribution to Market Square through its regular pharmacy provider Guardian. Guardian is a national chain that specializes in serving long-term care providers.

In preparation for starting its vaccination program, Market Square is in the process of educating employees, residents and guardians on the process and gathering consent forms.

While Market Square is not requiring its employees to be vaccinated, Rogers said they are encouraging everyone to provide consent ahead of Jan. 12.

“It is important that we receive enough doses for everyone,” Rogers explained. “A person can change their acceptance and decline the vaccine later. But if they opt out ahead of time we may not have enough on hand to cover them when the time comes.”

Like other organizations, Market Square Health Care Center was hit hard by the virus following the Thanksgiving holiday. On Nov. 27 its Facebook page noted that after three rounds of testing all results had been negative. But by Dec. 9 it posted that it was going through a COVID-19 outbreak.

Market Square provides residential, long-term nursing and memory care and rehabilitation services to more than 100 patients.

“Eight residents have passed away who tested positive for COVID,” Rogers said.  “Four were receiving Hospice Care at that time. Twenty-five percent of our employees have tested positive.

“All employees are tested every 7 days for the virus. The remaining residents who have not tested positive, which is less than 10, are being tested every three to five days.”

Rogers said that Market Square Health Care Center follows guidelines as communicated by both the Maine CDC and the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“We communicate five to seven times a week with our assigned liaison at the CDC,” he said. “We present them with all the protocols we have in place for COVID care and they provide feedback in any area they feel can strengthen our infection control.

“We will not consider ourselves as free of the virus until at least 14 days from the last positive test for COVID for either staff or resident. Our staff will continue to utilize personal protective equipment for the foreseeable future, well beyond the second vaccination date.”

All residents and staff will be given the vaccine starting Jan. 12. The required second dose will be given 28 days after first.


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