Since the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and distributed to states, people have wondered why the vaccines weren’t being used to save truly vulnerable populations. We’ve known since the early days of the pandemic that those most susceptible to a severe case or death from the disease are older populations and those with certain preexisting health conditions. Yet once the vaccine became available, we immediately began injecting them into the arms of young, healthy people. It just didn’t make sense.
On Tuesday, Governor Mills said she is reconsidering the rollout of vaccines in Maine in light of a new recommendation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which calls for prioritizing inoculations for those 65 and older and those with preexisting conditions. It’s hard to understand why this wasn’t the recommended use of our limited vaccine supply from the start. Nonetheless, the governor issued the following statement Tuesday:
“My fundamental goal throughout this pandemic has been, and continues to be, to save lives. With the introduction of vaccines last month, we were given a critical new tool in this effort.
“As we look forward in our vaccine planning efforts, we know three important things: 1) this virus most seriously threatens the lives of older people and those with underlying health conditions, 2) that Maine is a state with a large number of older people and people who have underlying health conditions, and 3) that Maine is receiving a limited, unpredictable, and inconsistent supply of vaccine from the federal government.
“Over the past several weeks, I have been closely reviewing the recommendations of the U.S. CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), have discussed them with health officials to understand their applicability for our state, and in the coming days, I will announce updates to our vaccine distribution. I believe it is appropriate to first target the limited supply of vaccine Maine receives to older Mainers and those with underlying health conditions. Doing so will save lives.
“We will review the specifics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendations as they are detailed in the coming days, and will have questions related to the logistical implications for states like Maine on the changing allocation formula and distribution of second doses, among other matters. But in principle, I am encouraged that they appear to align with our goals of quickly vaccinating those who are most at risk of losing their lives to this deadly virus.”
If the governor’s fundamental goal throughout the pandemic has been to save lives, older Mainers and those with underlying health conditions should have received the first shots. Instead, young, healthy people received them in what amounted to a gross publicity stunt. Many frontline workers received the first shots so they could become part of the state’s “vaccine force,” as Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah likes to put it. But given what we know about the disease and who it impacts most, the rationale behind this strategy never added up.
If a 20 or 30-something-year-old nurse stands near-zero risk of a serious case if they contract the virus, why were they vaccinated before people living in congregate care facilities who stand among the greatest risk of death? Why were middle-aged politicians and bureaucrats in Washington D.C. receiving inoculations before our elders?
Here’s a glimpse of what vaccine rollout has looked like in some states throughout the country. Unfortunately, detailed information about vaccination progress in Maine is not available, and the state lags behind others in making this data available to the public.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, as of December 31, 2020, 62% of the state’s initial vaccine supply went to people between the ages of 0 and 49 years old. People between the ages of 50 and 69 years received 36% of the vaccines administered in the state by December 31 and people over 70 years of age received just 2%.
How does this compare to COVID-19 death rates in the Bay State? According to a graphic published by the state’s Department of Public Health in August (before the state stopped publishing cumulative COVID-19 data by age group), the vast majority of people who died in the state were 70 years of age or older.
The same can be said for Pennsylvania. Phil Kerpen of American Commitment used data published by the state’s Department of Health to assemble the following graphic which shows the vast majority of the first inoculations in the state went to young, healthy people who stand little risk from COVID-19 while truly vulnerable populations, including those in nursing homes and other congregative living facilities, had to wait their turn.
Meanwhile in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis was criticized by the media and political pundits for not following the federal recommendation to vaccinate frontline workers first. Instead, DeSantis called for prioritizing the elderly and other vulnerable populations – the people who stand the highest risk of death if they contract COVID-19. This is what every state should have done from the start.
If the goal is to save lives, we should stop inoculating people in their 20s and 30s and inject shots into the arms of people whose lives could actually be saved with the available supply of vaccines. Unfortunately, vaccination data isn’t available for us to understand the extent to which this phenomenon is occurring in Maine.