Maine Develops New Vaccine Pre-Registration Website

The new website is intended to supplement vaccine scheduling information for small or new vaccination providers that is inadequate or non-existent. Soon the new website will allow users to book inoculation appointments.

(TNS) — State health officials launched a website on Tuesday that will allow Maine residents 16 and older to preregister for vaccination against COVID-19 and eventually schedule appointments.

The website is still being developed but will not be the statewide, centralized registration and appointment system envisioned during the early weeks of Maine's vaccination campaign. Instead, the new site appears geared toward smaller or newer vaccination providers that do not already have easy-to-use online platforms for booking vaccination appointments.

"Right now the goal is to get as many people registered as quickly as possible," said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "So this platform ... will not be meant to supplant existing scheduling platforms. It will rather fill in a gap for sites that would like to be doing more vaccination but are dissatisfied with their own existing scheduling platform or for places that would like to come online but have no scheduling (site)."

The new website is vaccinateme.maine.gov. While users cannot currently use the site to schedule appointments, Shah said that function will be added in the near future as more vaccine providers opt to use the state-run system. Representatives for the state's two largest health care providers, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, said their respective organizations plan to continue using their own registration and scheduling platforms for the foreseeable future. Northern Light and MaineHealth operate four high-volume vaccination sites — in Portland, Scarborough, Sanford and Bangor — as well as smaller clinics throughout the state.

MaineHealth spokesman John Porter said information technology staff are working to integrate the two platforms and in the meantime individuals who want to be assured a place on MaineHealth's list should still preregister with that network.

"Starting in January when vaccinations were opened to those 70 and older, we have been continuously investing in this system to enhance the user experience, adding new features and capabilities, including online scheduling," Porter said in a statement. "The system ties directly into our electronic medical record and has been a critical part of building a vaccination infrastructure that can accommodate up to 36,000 shots, including up to 18,000 first doses, per week — significantly more than the current allotment of vaccines available from the state."

The state did a "soft launch" of the new website, without any advance publicity, on the same day that Maine residents between 50 and 59 became eligible for vaccination. The expansion means an additional 164,000 Maine residents can now sign up for shots as state officials anticipate larger shipments of vaccine arriving in Maine in the coming weeks.

A total of 369,484 people — or roughly 27.5 percent of Maine's population of 1.3 million people — had received at least one shot of vaccine as of Tuesday morning, while 16.5 percent have received either both of their Pfizer or Moderna shots or the single-dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The next phase of Maine's vaccination effort is tentatively slated to begin on April 19, when all residents 16 and over will be eligible.

Next week's dose allocations to states were not available as of Tuesday evening, but Shah said federal distributions of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected to be less "robust" than hoped for. Maine could could receive a larger, one-time shipment of Pfizer doses, however, and distributions of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected to ramp up significantly in April.

The Maine CDC was slated to receive 35,190 initial doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines this week, with second doses sent separately when they are due to be administered. Additionally, pharmacies located in Hannaford, Walgreens and Walmart locations around the state received their own vaccine allocations, which are currently reserved for educators, school staff or child care workers, per federal rules.

Asked if Maine is on track to open up eligibility on April 19, Shah said that timeline is still realistic given projections of increased vaccine supplies and the capacity of existing vaccination sites to expand once supplies allow. Additionally, Shah said he has been encouraged by the rate of vaccinations, with roughly two thirds of those 60 and older having received their first dose.

"I've got confidence around this based on some of those factors," Shah said. "If any of those things change, then we will plug that into the calculator and see where it takes us. But for now, I am very encouraged."

Maine ranks among the top 10 states nationally in terms of the percentage of the population that has received at least one dose or have completed their vaccination regimen. Clinic operators say they could offer even more shots daily if they had doses on hand, but supplies remain constrained nationwide.

The preregistration — and eventually scheduling — website launched by the state this week marks another shift in the state's vaccination campaign.

Like most states across the country, Maine opted not to use a federal system launched late last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it lacked full-service features state officials said were needed. In the absence of a statewide, centralized system, however, health care networks were forced to quickly stand up their own registration and appointment systems.

The result has been a hodgepodge of systems, with some offering preregistration and waitlists while others only make appointments available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the initial problems reported by users — such as telephone wait times measuring in hours, overwhelmed internet servers and a lack of verification — have been smoothed out over time.

But Mainers must navigate a maze of different systems, with many people opting to register in multiple places in hopes of increasing their odds of snagging an appointment. The state's preregistration system could replace some of those systems, but Shah said some vaccine providers will likely opt to stick with their existing platforms rather than attempt a major information technology changeover.

"Making those big IT shifts in the middle of a pandemic, when the system is generally working OK, that's fraught," Shah said.

The Maine CDC reported 131 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday as well as two additional deaths. The 131 cases is fewest reported by state health officials in nearly a month and reduces Maine's seven-day, rolling average of new confirmed or probable infections to 200.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 48,773 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the state last March. The number of Maine residents whose deaths have been linked to COVID-19 stood at 731 on Tuesday with the two additional deaths.

There were 79 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide as of Tuesday, with 25 of them being treated in critical care units and 13 connected to ventilators.

(c)2021 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.