An Augusta-based health care system recruited a small group of donors and retired staff to receive its first round of coronavirus vaccinations for the public during a pilot clinic on Monday.
Sixty people were vaccinated at MaineGeneral Medical Center, during a clinic that the organization said was meant to prepare it to register and vaccinate larger numbers of Mainers throughout the rest of the week, as was first reported by the Bangor Daily News.
The clinic offered doses to a group primarily composed of volunteers and former staff, including 12 donors to the Augusta hospital. All were at least 70 years old in keeping with the state’s vaccination plan, according to MaineGeneral CEO Chuck Hays.
As states work to equitably distribute a limited supply of vaccine doses to millions of U.S. seniors seeking some protection against the coronavirus, MaineGeneral’s efforts to initially vaccinate a group of supporters did trigger a complaint to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Maine CDC Spokesperson Robert Long.
Long said the complaint expressed “concern about a communication from MaineGeneral that the constituent interpreted to be a possible indication of preferential treatment as it relates to the hospital’s vaccination clinics.”
When Maine CDC staff called MaineGeneral’s management “to reaffirm that equity is a guiding principle of the state’s vaccination plan,” the leaders assured the agency that its vaccine clinics would conform with the state’s plan, according to Long.
MaineGeneral began approaching the group that received shots on Monday more than a week before opening the vaccine registration to the general public, according to the BDN, which spoke with a former donor who was approached by the hospital’s philanthropy director.
The effort also stood in contrast to those of Maine’s two largest health care organizations, Maine Health and Northern Light Health, which did not report targeting donors in their vaccine outreach or requiring a pilot clinic, the BDN reported.
When MaineGeneral finally did hold open registration for vaccinations last Friday, the Augusta group received more than 400,000 calls, but only around 450 people ended up getting appointments for this week.
Several other states — including Rhode Island and Washington — have also encountered questions about favoritism as they work to distribute their limited supplies of vaccines, according to the BDN.
MaineGeneral officials said that their efforts were not meant to privilege anyone, but rather to test that they could efficiently register patients and administer the shots before doing so on a larger scale, an effort that acquired more urgency after the state recently announced that its own vaccine registry would not be ready for a few weeks, according to Hays.
He said that MaineGeneral targeted former employees and some volunteers who are familiar with the system so that they “could give us feedback on the process, because this is a complex process.” He said that there were 12 donors in that final mix of people because of how close-knit the Augusta community is.
“This is misconstrued as trying to give someone benefit, which we’re not trying to do,” Hays said. “We live in a very tight community, and a lot of people support the hospital, but really what we were looking for is those individuals who could help us with our processes.”
The hospital’s philanthropy staff helped to coordinate the vaccine clinic because they have experience running other events and because many of the system’s staff have been moved to other areas during the pandemic, according to Hays.
MaineGeneral is now working with state officials to open a larger clinic somewhere in the Augusta area that would be able to vaccinate 1,000 people per day, according to Hays, who said he knows how frustrating it has been for Mainers who have waited long hours to set up a vaccine appointment over the phone.
He hopes that that the mass vaccination site could launch in early March, but said that it would hinge on the availability of more vaccine doses.