By Tom Lamia
As all of you have done or are doing, I have waited patiently for my release from Covid 19 since news of its dangers emerged in early March. I have not traveled, dined out, physically engaged with my children, grandchildren, friends or relatives during this time. Susan and I have been together here in South Bristol, Maine, for the whole of that time, excepting only Susan’s return to the West Village for a few days in December to refresh and organize our Horatio Street apartment for occupancy by our youngest daughter, who had broken a leg and a foot while riding one of those electric-powered rental scooters in her Brooklyn neighborhood. She needed an elevator-accessible place to stay while recuperating.
I have mentioned in this column once or twice that out-of-state residents have come here to Maine in large numbers to escape Covid. Many of those refuge-seekers have stayed, finding rental housing or buying residential property here. The result is that prices for living space in Maine have increased at what Mainers consider to be an alarming rate, while residential market prices in New York have fallen proportionately. Similar feast or famine economic consequences have, no doubt occurred throughout the country.
But those events are not my focus today. Today I celebrate the beginning of the end of my Covid enforced seclusion. Yesterday, February 15, Presidents Day, Susan and I received our Moderna vaccine first doses at the Boothbay YMCA Vaccination Center. A second dose is scheduled for March 15 and, with that the end of my parole from Covid 19. A note about Maine’s experience with the disease is needed here. Maine was indeed a refuge in the early days of this scourge. The number of infections in the state was low for a few months, encouraging visitors and social mixing into the summer tourist season. A large wedding in Millinocket (in the middle of the state) dispersed the virus to population centers where hot spots quickly led to outbreaks that dispelled any remaining thoughts that Maine had unique protective qualities. Now the infection and death numbers are sobering: 42,700 cases and 650 deaths. My age group (80+), accounts for 5.7% of infections and 85% of deaths. Taking the next step in the analysis, 2,435 have been infected, of whom 552, or 23%, have died. I realize that the risk of any one person, like me, for example, is not foretold by these numbers, but the mind wanders to their meaning, which cannot be ignored.
When the vaccines became available and efforts to grasp how they might be distributed, when and by whom, it was not possible for me or anyone else to predict the time or circumstances for inoculation. A few states have been ahead of the process and Maine is one of those.
There may be some useful comparisons between my path to a vaccination center two days ago and your own experiences in New York. Like many of you, perhaps, my wait for information was often frustrating. No authoritative information allowed me to know whether I was doing the right thing by patiently waiting or the wrong thing by not aggressively seeking a place in line before the line passed me by.
The first tier of useful information was the state’s decision on priorities. Advice at the federal level, from the Center for Disease Control, is an important factor on setting priorities, but these are ultimately set by the states. Maine has its own CDC, headed by Dr. Nirav Shah, that is an example for public health administration that deserves recognition. Dr. Shah, usually with Governor Janet Mills at his side, holds press conferences daily that are broadcast over Maine Public radio. There is straight talk, self-criticism where necessary and frank statements of frustration when plans must be delayed or set aside by logistical problems. Maine came up with its priorities, adjusted them when vaccine availability required and plunged ahead with getting locations and personnel in place. Part of that planning was individual communication to Maine’s 1.3 million residents on what they should do to be included in the vaccination process. Specifically, that was to call a certain number to register. Initially, the priorities were: nursing home residents and staff, health care workers, firefighters, police, Maine CDC Covid staff (Phase 1a), those 75 and over (now 70+) (Phase 1b). Phases 1c and 2 (all others) will begin when Phase 1b is complete or, if earlier, when vaccine supply permits. Phase 1a is substantially complete and Phase 1b has been underway since the end of January. Susan and I are in Phase 1b. Several weeks before the vaccination program for Phase 1b began, we called the universal number to register for appointments. An automated response system took our information, acknowledged that we qualified and that we were then “pre-registered” and would receive a telephone call when our appointments could be made. Easy peasy.
The priorities for receiving the vaccine, the logistics for transporting, preserving and administering it, and the facilities and expertise for the capstone event (a shot in the arm) are all under Maine CDC and Maine Health control and direction; their skill, compassion and organization of the process led to my parole-ending injection.
There were no frustrating online forms or queues, no 5 a.m. telephone calls to snare an appointment, no evidentiary investigations or proof required for eligibility and no parsing of technical rules leading to puzzlement or disqualification. I did nothing but call that universal telephone number and provide my name, birthdate, telephone number and Zip Code to a digital device that assured me, after a few seconds, that I was “pre-registered.” Susan, separately, did the same a day or two later. We waited a few weeks, then, late last week, Susan got a call from a human telling her that she could have an appointment at the beginning of this week. She was delighted, of course, but not so much so that she forgot to say, “But, my husband is even older than I am, can he come, too?” And, that led to the minor miracle of an appointment for me at the same time and place—even though I had made my appointment request at a different time and through a different hospital network.
I confess that I was expecting problems in getting through the last stages of the process: the examination of our qualifications, insurance documentation, health issues that could be relevant, and so forth. But nothing of that kind stood in our way. We were greeted at the entrance to the YMCA Fieldhouse modest-sized parking lot and directed to a parking spot immediately in front of the entrance door. A large chalkboard showing the appointments currently being serviced was at the door. Ours was on the board minutes after we arrived. Once inside, we spent a few minutes at check in, where our ages and identification were taken, then we were escorted to a table where the entire process of documenting our visit and administering the vaccine took place under the supervision of trained volunteers, a support person who led us through some safety documents and a retired nurse who came back into service to administer the vaccine and monitor our condition for ten or twenty minutes as precaution against reactions, allergic or otherwise. We had none.
The accompanying photo, taken without my being aware, shows me idling on my phone during the last few minutes of the post-injection watchful waiting process. Next, we went to check out and were given a date to return for our second and final shot. My parole will then end and I will be released into the wider world.