MaineHealth, the region’s largest integrated health system, has started to offer limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines to people 70 and older around the state, and the response is overwhelming.

According to a press release, on Monday, Jan. 18, the first day MaineHealth’s vaccination call center was fully operational, more than 18,000 people called seeking a vaccination, many of them placing multiple calls. As a result, MaineHealth is looking at alternatives to manage the high volume of requests.

Franklin Community Health Network in Farmington and Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick were to begin a regular schedule of vaccinations for Maine residents 70 and older starting Jan. 19, the press release said. Other local organizations within MaineHealth will commence with vaccinations of people in that age group over the course of the next week or so.

In the Midcoast, Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital in Rockland and Belfast are in the planning stages, with vaccinations of those 70 and older expected to start in Belfast on Jan. 27, while the expectation at Pen Bay is that vaccinations for those 70 and older will commence in the coming weeks

MaineHealth officials stressed that, for now, there will be limited supplies of the vaccine and they expect demand to far exceed the amount of vaccine being allotted through the state. Officials said demand for scheduling so far has been overwhelming, and they ask everyone to be patient.

In the meantime, MaineHealth is asking people not to reach out to local MaineHealth practices to try to schedule a vaccination, but to visit mainehealth.org/vaccine for the most up-to-date information.

A check of the website by The Republican Journal at 5 p.m. Jan. 19 indicated that under the currently active Phase 1B for people age 70 and older, all available appointments are booked; visitors are asked to please check back tomorrow to see if additional vaccine appointments are available.

People age 65 and older could sign up on the website for appointments in Phase 1B-2, although this phase is not yet active. Signing up involves listing a ZIP code, a preference for contact by email or phone, and the address or phone number.

Others eligible to sign up in this phase include adults with high-risk medical conditions that put them at greater risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19, and frontline essential workers (those in agriculture/food production, postal service, manufacturing, groceries, public transit, education and day care).

Last week, after suggesting there were vaccines being held in reserve for second doses that could be released early, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in fact it had no such reserves on hand and distribution would remain largely flat for coming weeks. As a result, MaineHealth’s weekly allotment of vaccines hasn’t increased significantly over previous weeks, the press release said.

The health system is still working through vaccinations in the so-called Phase 1A group, which includes health care workers both within MaineHealth and the communities it serves. Nursing home residents and staff are also part of Phase 1A and are being vaccinated through commercial pharmacy chains.

Now, with Phase 1A nearing completion, according to the press release, there are vaccines available for the Phase 1B group. However, it is expected that the federal government won’t be able to distribute enough vaccines initially to keep up with demand.

In addition to vaccinations starting in Farmington and Brunswick Jan. 19, Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford and Sanford, and Western Maine Health/Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway expect to begin vaccinating people 70 and older by Friday, Jan. 22. LincolnHealth in Damariscotta and Boothbay Harbor and Maine Medical Center/Maine Medical Partners in greater Portland expect to start vaccinating people 70 and older beginning on Monday, Jan. 25.

Memorial Hospital in North Conway, N.H., expects to start administering vaccines to New Hampshire residents 65 and older beginning Jan. 26. (Memorial patients who reside in Maine must be 70 or older to be vaccinated and will be referred to a clinic operating in Maine.)

Both the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the vaccine require cold storage and special handling. Also vaccine recipients must be observed for a period of time afterward to monitor against adverse reactions. Because of these requirements, vaccinations will not be done through MaineHealth medical practices, but instead at clinics set up specifically to administer the vaccine.

Vaccinations are by appointment only, and people are urged not to arrive at a vaccination site without one.