‘You find the vaccine, we will find the people’

Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah drops by Lincolnville vaccine clinic

Sat, 04/10/2021 - 9:00pm

    LINCOLNVILLE — After visiting the April 10 Boothbay Harbor COVID 19 vaccine clinic, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah headed further Down East to the Community Building in Lincolnville Center, to drop in on the vaccine clinic there, which was a joint effort of the town and North East Mobile Health Services.

    This was the third such clinic the town and ambulance service has hosted in the past month, extending an open invitation for the public to sign up and show up on vaccination day.

    All the Lincolnville clinics have filled rapidly after being made public, and Saturday’s was no exception — although the weather was warmer than normal, and those in line outside took the opportunity to soak up the sun.

    As did Shah, and his dog, Quinton (who goes by the name Quincy), along with Butch Russell, of North East, and Lincolnville Town Administrator David Kinney, who was on duty ushering people through the door, maintaining order to the public health clinic.

    Dr. Shah had arrived with Drexel White, public health liaison for the Maine CDC’s Region 4, to talk with people, which he did, moving inside to visit with volunteers, ambulance staff and those who had received their vaccines but were sitting for the requisite 15 minutes to ensure no allergic reactions. How was their registration process, he would ask. How easy or difficult was it to get an appointment?

    Shah has been driving to different parts of Maine since January, visiting clinics in urban and rural locations. It’s important to him to understand the nuances of the vaccination effort and to understand “on the ground,” how the system is working.

    “Most Saturdays, I like to go see what’s going on,” he said. “I spend six and half days in my office, working on allocating vaccine, figuring out where it needs to go, and how to do so efficiently. I like to take half a day every week to get out and see how things are going so I can learn about the implications of the decisions we made.”

    While the volume of vaccine is not at the level he wants, Shah is comfortable with the state’s distribution process.

    “I think the numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “We’re third in the country now, in terms of the percentage of people who have been vaccinated. A couple of days ago, we were fourth.”

    Are the states in a friendly competition?

    “It’s not,” he said. “But it’s always good to benchmark progress. It’s also important to know whether the decisions I make, and the Governor makes, are correct or not.”

    Shah, who emerged as a state leader during the pandemic, is regarded as articulate and respected for being forthright with the public. In person, away from the television and computer cameras, he is easygoing, a Maine resident out for a drive with his dog.

    But public health is always on his mind.

    “I took some controversial decisions when it came to the way we were going to go about vaccinating — the age-based strategy, the focus on very large-scale sites [Cross Insurance Center, Scarborough Downs, the Civic Center, which are all in Maine’s more populated areas], which was controversial, both in Maine and nationally, but I stand by it,” he said.

    He has been involved with mass vaccination campaigns before, albeit never on the scale of COVID-19. One principle is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, he said.

    “You can’t vaccinate everyone immediately, but you really do need to follow 70-20-10 or 80-20 approach, at least in my reckoning,” he said. “I modeled a lot of this with the math behind it. That further convinced me that the only way we were going to be able to move with vaccinations was to use the large sites. Having established those, we looked to build out more infrastructure so folks don’t need to drive an hour or two.”

    Even though Mainers are accustomed to driving 90 minutes or longer for a destination. 

    “Which my advisors told me is not uncommon in Maine, but it’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not accessible for people in Androscoggin County, for example.”

    He then qualified, saying, “maybe controversial was overstating it, but it was a decision that had down sides.”

    It’s a decision he’s comfortable with, however.

    “I felt we needed to do it,” he said. “We are not doing childhood vaccinations here. We are not doing back-to-school. We’re in a pandemic. We’ve got to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible.”

    And now, across the state, the smaller clinics have filled up — not all immediately, but quickly. 

    At the Lincolnville clinics, however, the sign-ups have been speedy, and on April 10, people were receiving the Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccination. 

    After a year of being in a pandemic, which has been “sad and hard,” said Shah, “these are the first real unqualified glimmers of happiness, and hope that I’ve seen across the state. The first site I visited in January was at the Cross Insurance Center [Bangor], and you could tell how excited people were. I’ve seen that replicated across the state. Right before this, Drexel and I were at the Lincoln Health Center in Boothbay, and there were people clapping and dancing. It’s quite remarkable.”

    But never ask Shah what he thinks about the future. He is known for refraining from making predictions or projections.

    “I don’t go six months out,” he said. “I can talk about the next two or three weeks. These next couple of weeks are going to be a little bit of a mixed bag. We are not going to be getting a lot of J&J this upcoming week and the week thereafter. So clinics like this are going to have to be put on pause, unfortunately. The current week we are wrapping up, we got about 20,500 doses of J&J; next week we are getting 2,000. Clinics of this nature are not going to be possible for two weeks.”

    Those who did get their vaccines in Lincolnville were smiling as they left the Community Building, happy with the weekend, the weather and the feeling of adding a blanket of protection against COVID-19.

    The clinic, a collaboration of the town and North East Mobile Health Services, will likely pop up again, when vaccine doses are available.

    “North East reached out to us initially to say they had the opportunity to hold it in Lincolnville, and we quickly said yes,” said Town Administrator Kinney. “Since that time, we have been calling North East to say, ‘how about another one? You find the vaccine, we will find the people.’”

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657