Community clinics help Maine, Portland bridge the vaccination gap

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As the number of new daily COVID-19 cases in Maine hit consecutive all-time records last week, officials from Augusta to Washington, D.C., encouraged people to get vaccine booster shots as soon as possible.

But doing so has proved hard to do in Maine’s largest city.

Despite Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement Nov. 17 that all adults are eligible to receive boosters, a lack of available vaccination sites in the greater Portland area have combined to create a situation where people have been unable to schedule appointments quickly.

Businesses like Chaval on Pine Street, above, and Little Woodfords on Congress Street have offered COVID-19 pop-up vaccination clinics in response to the difficulty many people in Portland have had trying to schedule shots. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

But even though the Mills administration released a list of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination sites, many people in the greater Portland area found themselves unable to schedule appointments at local pharmacies and medical offices.

So some unconventional places in Portland have stepped up to help make shots available.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who owns the Little Woodfords coffee shop on Congress Street, said his store held its first vaccine clinic the week of Thanksgiving, and about 60 people showed up. The clinic was held in partnership with Local Roots Health Care, a Kennebunk provider.

Zarro said a second clinic on Dec. 4 was even more successful. Initially, he only planned to run it from 2 p.m.-4 p.m., but it ended up going until well after 8 p.m. More than 150 came through for the shot, he said.

Since then, Local Roots has partnered with other Portland businesses to either host or plan additional walk-in clinics.

“It’s just so cool to see all these people who are problem-solving this supply-and-demand issue by pitching in and doing the little things,” Zarro said.

Ilma Lopez, co-owner of Chaval in the West End, said her restaurant has also provided two booster clinics after seeing the success at Little Woodfords. She said 120 people came through for the first one; even more attended the second last Sunday. 

“The situations in the hospitals are high,” Lopez said. “Anything we can do for the community, why not?”

Kyle Holmquist, a nurse practitioner at Local Roots, said the clinics have been “a tremendous success” and it’s been “heartwarming” to see how many people are prioritizing health by getting the boosters.

Following the success of the clinics at Little Woodfords, he said more businesses began reaching out to Local Roots.

Holmquist said he has held clinics at Woodford Food and Beverage, Mechanics Hall, and the Maine College of Art and Design. He said he was working on other locations as the holidays quickly approach. 

Holmquist said the pop-up model is something that can work for other providers and businesses, although an organization like his is best equipped to be flexible. He said these kinds of clinics are especially important in places where access to a pharmacy can be a challenge.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the local pop-up clinics are a good thing, and she would like to see the city offer more of them. She said there have been conversations between the city and MaineHealth about operating local clinics, although details have not been finalized.

The city already operates the Portland Free Clinic at the new Health and Human Services building at 39 Forest Ave. A city spokesperson said Portland has also operated several booster clinics for its own staff, which is all the city has resources for at this time.

“Clearly people are looking for the vaccination and the booster and are willing to stand in line to do so,” Snyder said. “That’s pretty meaningful.”

Elsewhere, the state opened a walk-in clinic last week at the Augusta Armory that administered 475 booster shots on the first day. The site was specifically opened in response to concerns about the lack of access to the vaccine.

Zarro said he’s begun having discussions with the city to see what can be done to host a larger pop-up clinic like the one in Augusta.

A spokesperson for Gov. Mills said the challenge to securing vaccine appointments is the result of a lack of pharmacy staff to administer the shots, which is why the state opened the Augusta clinic.

Drop-in vaccinations are also available at the York County EMA clinic in Sanford and a community clinic at the Auburn Mall. More information on vaccination clinics can be obtained by calling 1-888-445-4111.

“Maine businesses have been incredible partners throughout the pandemic, working hard to protect their employees, their customers, and their communities, while keeping their doors open, and these clinics are just further proof of their commitment to the health of our communities,” Mills told the Phoenix.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced several no-appointment-required vaccination and booster clinics will be held by Northern Light Home Care and Hospice at the former Pier 1 store at the Maine Mall in South Portland. All three vaccines are available for anyone 5 and older, and booster shots are available for those 16 or older:

• Dec. 15 and 16, 1 p.m.-7 p.m.

• Dec. 17, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

• Dec. 18, noon-5 p.m.

• Dec. 21-23, 1 p.m.-7 p.m.

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