Rural Maine counties with lower vaccination rates are feeding a surge of the COVID-19 delta variant that produced 665 new cases on Friday, the highest one-day total since Jan. 20, near the peak of the pandemic.
Cases are soaring in such areas as Piscataquis, Penobscot, Aroostook and Waldo counties.
There were three additional deaths.
Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 77,578 cases of COVID-19, and 940 deaths. Penobscot County continued its recent surge, topping the state with 148 new cases, followed by Cumberland County with 92 additional cases. All counties in Maine except Lincoln County are now categorized as having high virus transmission, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which means people are recommended to wear masks in indoor public places regardless of vaccination status. Lincoln County is listed as having substantial transmission.
Piscataquis County has the second-worst vaccination rate in the state, with 53 percent of its population fully inoculated, and the highest number of cases over a seven-day period, with 512.4 cases per 100,000 population. The counties seeing the most virus transmission over the past week – Piscataquis, Penobscot, Aroostook and Waldo counties – all have vaccination rates below 60 percent.
Cumberland County has the state’s highest vaccination rates at 74.4 percent, followed by Lincoln County at 68.9 percent. Lincoln County has the lowest virus prevalence in the state, while Cumberland was the seventh-lowest. However, some low vaccination counties are also experiencing lower rates of the virus. That includes Oxford and Androscoggin counties, which have vaccination rates of about 55 percent, and cases rates of about 110 per 100,000 population over the past week.
The seven-day average of daily new cases climbed to 372.3 on Friday, compared to 215.6 a week ago and 101.4 a month ago. Friday was the second consecutive day with more than 600 new cases.
Hospitalizations remain high, with 163 people with COVID-19 in Maine hospitals, including 62 in critical care and 26 on ventilators.
On Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that the state would delay enforcement of the vaccination requirement for health care workers from Oct. 1 to Oct. 29, giving providers more time to address potential workforce shortages from workers who refuse the vaccine and quit their jobs.
“My goal is that every healthcare worker in Maine is vaccinated,” Mills said in a statement. “Anyone who is placed in the care of a health care worker has the right to expect – as do their families – that they will receive high-quality, safe care from fully vaccinated staff.”
Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, led an effort last week seeking more time for health care workers to get vaccinated to try to deal with a potential workforce shortage. Several service providers representing nursing homes, mental health and substance use services, home health care workers and others, asked Mills for a 45-day delay in a letter Aug. 26.
Shaughnessy said Thursday that the social service agencies are in a “precarious” position and are losing workers to places like Starbucks and Walmart. Three nursing homes recently announced they were closing because of staffing issues.
“Providers are going to lose potentially 15 to 25 percent of their staff who will outright refuse the vaccine,” Shaughnessy said. “The extra month is definitely going to be helpful getting them through. We need time to try to find other people.”
On the vaccination front, 848,862 Maine people, or 63.15 percent of the state’s 1.3 million population, have received their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
This story will be updated.