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On remote Maine islands, a mission to vaccinate

Registered nurse Maureen Giffin prepared vaccines for residents at Isle au Haut Town Hall on the second day of distribution. The hall served as a combination of the town offices, gym, and only library on the island.
Registered nurse Maureen Giffin prepared vaccines for residents at Isle au Haut Town Hall on the second day of distribution. The hall served as a combination of the town offices, gym, and only library on the island.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

MATINICUS, Maine — The two dozen winter residents of Matinicus Island, give or take a few, lined up off a muddy road, distanced and masked, many wearing the plaid flannel shirts, paint-spattered jeans, and fisherman’s waders that could pass for a uniform here.

It was COVID-19 vaccination day on Matinicus, which sits farther at sea in the open Atlantic than any other inhabited American island. And everyone was welcome. All ages, all health conditions, and all who were motivated to protect one another in a remote place about 20 miles from the mainland.

“We know the virus can come with anybody,” said George Tarkleson, the 66-year-old town manager of the rugged island, whose population swells to about 125 in the summer.

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Ministering to this hardy bunch, who bared their arms for a first dose of Moderna vaccine, were five staff members and volunteers from the Maine Seacoast Mission, a nonprofit group created in 1905 that serves the health and community needs of 10 unbridged, inhabited islands east of Boothbay Harbor.

The mission chartered a small, single-prop plane last week for a wind-tossed ride to the short, dirt runway at Matinicus. Air travel is rare for the mission. For most of its vaccination clinics, the group uses the Sunbeam, its 74-foot ship, to reach other islands such as Great Cranberry, Frenchboro, Isleford, and Isle au Haut.

The main intersection of Matinicus where the school and town hall is located. The island is 20 miles off the Maine coast.
The main intersection of Matinicus where the school and town hall is located. The island is 20 miles off the Maine coast. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

So far, more than 200 islanders off Maine have been vaccinated by the mission, a task that state health officials said would have taken a good deal longer if not for the crew’s enterprise and sense of duty.

“I expect it would have been a significant amount of time,” said Sally Weiss, director of COVID-19 testing for the state Department of Health and Human Services. “We were thinking about how we were going to approach this, and when they stepped forward, it helped to glue it all together.”

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Matinicus had not recorded a single case of COVID before the mission arrived, and residents embraced the chance to keep it that way without leaving home. Flying off-island, staying overnight, and getting vaccinated would cost more than $200.

From December through February, the ferry to Rockland leaves Matinicus only once a month. In March, it sails twice.

“It saves me a trip to town,” said Tony Hughes, 75, using a local term for the mainland. Another term is “the United States,” quipped pilot Shawn Michaud of Penobscot Island Air, which serves Matinicus.

Isle au Haut resident Ellie Kastanopolous knitted while waiting the required 15 minutes after receiving her vaccination from the Seacoast Mission crew.
Isle au Haut resident Ellie Kastanopolous knitted while waiting the required 15 minutes after receiving her vaccination from the Seacoast Mission crew. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Some of the islanders who congregated at the schoolhouse make their living from the sea. Another works as the only plumber on Matinicus. And one islander who came to the schoolhouse that day, Charles Rogers Jr., described himself as “pretty much a hermit.”

Sam Macleod, a 35-year-old fisherman, said the vaccine means “I can finally go out in public and not worry about bringing the disease home.”

For lobsterman Jarod Bray, 37, the first dose brought an added layer of relief.

“I have cystic fibrosis so, definitely, there was more of a reason for me to come here,” Bray said. The second doses are scheduled for April 1.

The Seacoast Mission, founded by two Congregational ministers, serves a broad array of social needs on the islands, such as stocking food cupboards at schools and helping elderly residents remain in their homes.

“If these people were born here, they grew up with us,” said John Zavodny, the mission president, who registered arrivals for vaccinations at the Matinicus Island School, which hasn’t had a pupil for two years. “This is what we do. This is who we are. We are uniquely positioned to help.”

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Tarkleson, the town manager, was the first to step through the door.

“George, what arm do you want your shot in?” Zavodny asked.

“I don’t know,” Tarkleson said with a shrug.

“Well, I can’t pick it for you,” Zavodny replied with a smile.

In short order, Tarkleson was on his way to a rectangular table set up on a raised portion of the schoolhouse floor. There, at opposite ends of the table, nurses Sharon Daley and Peggy Akers began the quick work of putting shots into arms.

Isle au Haut teacher Marcela Carroll received a vaccine from Sharon Daley, a registered nurse and director of island health services for Seacoast Mission, in the library of Isle au Haut Town Hall. Carroll was one of 40 residents to receive the vaccine over three hours.
Isle au Haut teacher Marcela Carroll received a vaccine from Sharon Daley, a registered nurse and director of island health services for Seacoast Mission, in the library of Isle au Haut Town Hall. Carroll was one of 40 residents to receive the vaccine over three hours. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Thirty-one islanders received the vaccine this day, including several seasonal residents who own property on Matinicus and traveled to the island just for a dose. For more than a few, the vaccinations provided an infrequent chance to catch up with neighbors who have been hunkering down and staying largely out of sight since the pandemic hit the mainland.

On some of the islands, group vaccinations have prompted dancing, tears, and tender reunions between elderly residents and grandchildren who hadn’t seen each other in a year, said Daley, a registered nurse who is the mission’s director of island health services.

Maureen Giffin, a nurse who volunteered for the Matinicus trip, said she felt humbled to be part of a far-reaching COVID response.

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“It’s a huge privilege to come out and vaccinate this island,” Giffin said. “It’s injecting hope, and they’re so grateful.”

Samantha Philbrook, a 38-year-old islander with hair dyed “midnight ruby,” caught up with neighbors as she stood in the schoolhouse with her white American shepherd, Yoda.

“A lot of us can’t leave this time of year,” she said. “This is great.”

Delivering vaccines to Matinicus and other islands demands a complicated and uncertain planning process, considering that doses are not consistently available and can be used only for a relatively short time after they leave refrigeration.

Storey King took the vaccine cooler off the Sunbeam as the Seacoast Mission crew arrived at Great Cranberry Island, the crew's first stop after leaving its home base of Northeast Harbor.
Storey King took the vaccine cooler off the Sunbeam as the Seacoast Mission crew arrived at Great Cranberry Island, the crew's first stop after leaving its home base of Northeast Harbor.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Yet, Seacoast Mission and its partners found a way. Between trips, vaccines have been stored at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor and Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, ready to be distributed when Maine’s unpredictable winter weather cooperates.

“You’re always dealing with time and tide, but now it’s time and tide and availability,” Zavodny said. “We’re on the clock.”

On this trip, the mission had 12 hours to administer the vaccines from the time the doses were retrieved in Rockport, placed in a small cooler, and flown to Matinicus. Afterward, the few doses left over were not wasted, but were instead offered to pilots and crew at the Penobscot Island Air terminal in Owls Head.

It was another day for the Seacoast Mission, another Maine island vaccinated. For some on Matinicus, the disease seems a world away from these 750 isolated acres of spruce and granite. But COVID could come at any time, with any visitor, and a few more vaccinated Mainers represent a few more steps toward a healthier statewide community.

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“This is a drop in the bucket,” Zavodny said. “But when you’re talking about people’s lives, it means everything to them.”

Katelyn Damon, (left) chief of Cranberry Isles Rescue Service; Barb Fernald, (center) an Islesford resident; and Mary Schuch, assistant chief of Cranberry Isles Rescue Service, applauded Seacoast Mission staff after they vaccinated islanders at the local library in Islesford.
Katelyn Damon, (left) chief of Cranberry Isles Rescue Service; Barb Fernald, (center) an Islesford resident; and Mary Schuch, assistant chief of Cranberry Isles Rescue Service, applauded Seacoast Mission staff after they vaccinated islanders at the local library in Islesford.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.