Monday’s cold temperatures and brisk winds couldn’t keep Independence Association from holding the first drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinic in southern Maine.
The Brunswick nonprofit, which provides housing and other services for adults with intellectual disabilities, vaccinated about 70 clients and 90 caregivers outside its headquarters at 3 Industrial Parkway. Guardian Pharmacy of Maine, whose main office is conveniently located next door, staffed the clinic with four pharmacists.
The agency organized the drive-thru because many of its clients have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of serious illness and death if they contract COVID-19 and they live in congregate settings that increase the chances of spreading the virus.
Lined up in cars, the caregivers and their clients moved slowly through registration, inoculation and observation points, with most simply rolling down their windows to receive the first of two Moderna shots in their upper arms. Some in wheelchairs were vaccinated outside their vehicles.
“We waited patiently for two hours and we’re both glad that we got the vaccine,” said Robert Hipp, a direct support professional who drove a client to be vaccinated. “It was cold and it was windy, but it was good to finally get vaccinated.”
The clinic, which ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., was the first drive-thru COVID-19 inoculation effort using vaccine provided through the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Togas VA Medical Center in Augusta has been holding weekly, appointment-only drive-thru clinics since Jan. 6, vaccinating more than 870 veterans enrolled in the VA Maine Healthcare System. The clinics have not been announced publicly and veterans are being contacted individually to receive shots as the federal VA provides vaccine.
With temps in the low 30s Monday, the drive-thru clinic in Brunswick was a bit surprising in midwinter Maine, but the mostly outdoor operation was scheduled to take place regardless of the weather.
“We wanted this to happen,” said Ray Nagel, executive director of Independence Association. “We had about 20 staff members running the clinic and they dressed for the role. And it was sunny out, so it was warm if you stayed in sunshine.”
Nagel said the drive-thru clinic allowed his agency to vaccinate a large number of people under strict public health and safety protocols and in a relatively short amount of time.
“The average wait was about 2 hours,” Nagel said. “That sounds like a long time, but it’s not when you’re trying to be safe and do things in an organized way.”
The clinic also limited clients’ risk of contracting COVID-19 during the process, whether or not they ultimately were vaccinated, Nagel said. A few clients declined to be vaccinated after they arrived because they were anxious or upset.
Because of the agency’s ongoing vigilance throughout the pandemic, none of its residential clients has tested positive for coronavirus, Nagel said.
“We know that people with intellectual and physical disabilities who live in congregate settings are at much higher risk,” Nagel said.
Independence Association provides three types of housing for people who have intellectual and physical disabilities: residential group homes, independent-living apartment communities and shared-living placements, all with in-home support to meet individual needs.
A study of more than 8 million adults in the United Kingdom found that people who have Down syndrome are four times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than the general population, and 10 times more likely to die from it, according to the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Down syndrome is a genetic condition associated with immune dysfunction, congenital heart disease and pulmonary pathology, according to the UK study. It’s also the most common congenital condition, occurring in 1 in 700 births, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nagel said Maine is ahead of other states because it prioritized residents of long-term and congregate care facilities in Phase 1A of its vaccination plan, according to the Maine CDC website. Phase 1B, which is set to start in February but has already begun a slow rollout, includes people age 70 and older and those with underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19, such as Down syndrome.
Independence Association preregistered clients and caregivers before Monday’s clinic, obtaining written consent, health history and health insurance information in advance, Nagel said. Staff members checked in each carload as it arrived, taking down names, assigning a number to each vehicle and placing an identification sheet under the windshield wiper.
As the line of cars moved under the agency’s portico entrance, staff members took the information sheet inside, where the data was entered into a central online registry connected to the Maine CDC, Nagel said. Once the occupants of a car were registered, a pharmacist went outside to the waiting vehicle, asked each person several questions about their health history and vaccinated each individual.
“It’s very rewarding for myself and my team to be part of the solution,” said Courtney Oland, president and owner of Guardian Pharmacy of Maine, which serves long-term care and congregate facilities.
The drivers of each car were instructed to proceed to a waiting area where staff members would observe their reactions to the vaccine for 15 minutes, Nagel said. The drivers were asked to monitor the reactions of others in their car and honk the horn if there were any signs of allergic reaction or other problems; a pharmacist would respond with an Epinephrine auto-injection pen and a staff member would call 911.
“There were no medical problems,” Nagel said. A few clients had panic attacks that were quelled by a pharmacist, he said.
Founded in 1966, Independence Association serves more than 400 adults and children in nine Maine counties who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Nagel said his agency will hold a second drive-thru vaccination clinic Feb. 22 to administer a booster shot to the clients and caregivers who received a first dose on Monday and give first shots to others. Ultimately, he said, about 300 clients and nearly 250 staff members will be vaccinated.
Robert Hipp, the direct support professional, said his client is looking forward to it.
“She was worried about the vaccine for months,” Hipp said. “Now, she said she was happy to have it. She’s an artist and she’s looking forward to getting back into the studio. That’s what she lives for.”
Note: This story was updated at 10:50 a.m. Jan. 26, 2021, to make clear that the Brunswick effort was the first drive-though clinic in southern Maine and to include information about drive-thru clinics that began earlier this month at Togas VA Medical Center in Augusta.