The Augusta Civic Center will be used as a mass COVID-19 vaccination site. Organizers say it could accommodate 750 to 1,000 people a day, if vaccine supply allows. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

State health officials reported 17 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest daily increase in several weeks, along with 164 new cases.

But only two of those deaths came in the last 24 hours. The others occurred between Jan. 26 and Feb. 14 and were confirmed following a periodic review of vital records by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, Maine is anticipating even more vaccine supply next week, particularly if a vaccine by Johnson & Johnson earns FDA approval in the next few days, which is possible.

Maine’s seven-day daily case average increased slightly to 150 on Wednesday, but that is still down from 217 cases two weeks ago and from 455 this time last month. Overall, there have been 43,900 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 677 deaths from the virus since the pandemic reached Maine almost a year ago, according to data tracked by the CDC. The United States eclipsed 500,000 deaths this week, by far the most of any country.

Most deaths in Maine are reported to the CDC from hospitals, nursing homes and sometimes funeral homes, but that doesn’t capture all COVID-19 deaths. CDC staff regularly reach out to the state’s Division of Data, Research and Vital Statistics to review death certificates. Each is examined to see whether or not COVID-19 could have been a contributing factor. When the CDC finishes reviewing a large batch of death certificates, a big one-day spike typically follows, which is what happened Wednesday.

The number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Maine also increased by seven to 74 on Wednesday morning, although the number is still about one-third what it was at peak in mid-January. Of those hospitalized right now, 25 are in critical care and seven are on ventilators. In all, 1,515 people have been hospitalized at some point.

With regard to vaccinations, 206,647 Maine residents have gotten at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. That represents slightly more than 15 percent of the state’s population. The number of Mainers who have received both doses rose to 102,024, which is 7.6 percent of the population.

According to a state-by-state tracker by Bloomberg News, Maine ranks 12th with 22.28 doses given per 100,000 people. The national rate is 19.6 doses per 100,000.

Among Maine residents age 70 and older, about 56 percent have received their first dose, while 15 percent have been fully vaccinated. Maine has prioritized older residents because they have the highest risk of death. Of the 677 people who have died from COVID-19 in Maine, 563 (83 percent) have been 70 or older, even though that age group accounts for just 12 percent of all cases.

Demand for vaccination appointments even within that 70+ age group continues to outpace vaccine supplies, although not in every location.

Northern Light Health, the parent company of Mercy Hospital, Eastern Maine Medical Center and others, reported again Wednesday that they had appointment timeslots available at the mass-vaccination clinic at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Northern Light recently opened an additional “pod” at the arena that will allow up to 3,000 shots per day once supplies allow and is adding a fourth day of vaccinations at the clinic next week.

Eligible individuals can schedule appointments online at covid.northernlighthealth.org or by calling (207) 204-8551. Clinics will be held at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday next week, and Northern Light officials said Wednesday they are still hoping to open a vaccination clinic at the Portland Expo next week.

“We are very excited to ramp up our vaccination efforts,” Dr. James Jarvis, Northern Light’s COVID-19 senior physician executive, said in a video conference with reporters. “We do have appointments available for this coming Saturday (in Bangor) as well as for our clinics next week. So please, if you fit the age category of 70 and older, please reach out to get scheduled for a vaccine.”

Maine has been steadily increasing the number of vaccinations over the last couple weeks. It has received about 36,000 doses this week between the state’s allocation and direct shipments to pharmacies, which is nearly double what it was just a few weeks ago. The pharmacy chain Walgreens will begin vaccinating eligible residents this week as well, providing another option to supplement clinics that have been held at hospitals and at two large-scale sites – Scarborough Downs and Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Appointments are required for the Walgreens vaccinations and can be made online at Walgreens’ website or by calling 1-800-WALGREENS.

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to President Biden, said Wednesday that vaccine shipments to states will increase to 16.5 million doses next week, which will likely mean several thousand more doses for Maine.

That could increase even more with the eventual FDA approval of a vaccine by Johnson & Johnson. The FDA said Wednesday that the one-dose vaccine offers strong protection against severe cases of COVID-19 or death, which is a first step toward gaining emergency use authorization potentially as early as this weekend. Johnson & Johnson has said it has at least 3 million doses to distribute immediately following federal approval.

Jarvis with Northern Light said he would not expect a large number of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson to begin arriving in Maine immediately after FDA authorization. But he said the vaccine’s shelf stability – requiring only refrigeration instead of storage in freezers or ultracold storage – could help with transportation and with expanding vaccinations to private practices, pharmacies and hospitals.

“It’s still going to be a little bit of time before Johnson & Johnson plays a significant role here in the state of Maine,” Jarvis said. “But we certainly welcome having yet a third vaccine to help us with this fight against this pandemic.”

Maine is close to moving into the next part of Phase 1B of its vaccination plan, which will involve vaccinating residents between the ages of 65 and 69. Officials have said that will begin once at least two-thirds of 70-and-older residents have had their first shot, which could be as early as next week. Also included in Phase 1B are people under the age of 65 with high-risk medical conditions and certain categories of frontline workers, but Maine has not made any final decisions about who will be included.

Asked Tuesday why the state has avoided making firm decisions on certain categories – teachers, for instance – Maine CDC director Nirav Shah defended the state’s caution.

“I recognize fully that it means a lot of folks are left feeling like they don’t know where their spot in line is. I acknowledge that,” Shah said. “When I know something to be the case, that’s when I’m ready to talk about it and double down on it. If I don’t know with certainty, then I’m really hesitant and gun-shy on making promises I can’t keep.”

As the volume of vaccination increases, the need for volunteers has become more acute. Northern Light Health said this week that it is seeking volunteers for a variety of roles both clinical and non-clinical, including COVID symptom screeners, line traffic managers, appointment validators, check-in staff and more. The health care organization already has reached out to athletic teams, service organization members, workplace teams, retirees and others.

Anyone who is interested can sign up online at: northernlighthealth.org/covidvolunteers.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this story.

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