How Maine became a Covid-19 hotspot

Maine and northern New England have been among the safest places in the United States for most of the pandemic, with low case rates, per capita hospitalizations and deaths. But something changed with the arrival of the Delta variant this fall, plunging Maine and its neighbors into crisis, even as many people in rural parts of the state are going about their lives as if the pandemic was over.

The past couple weeks were particularly bad. On Dec. 16 I reported in the Press Herald how three rural Maine counties — Franklin, Aroostook and Piscataquis, had managed to register the 4th, 5th, and 6th highest per capita new 7-day case rates of the 3240 counties in the United States. By the following day Arostook had risen to number 3 and, if it had been an independent country on that day, it would have also had the third worst rate on the planet.

I explored what went wrong, how hospitals are being effected, and the central role of the unvaccinated in last week’s front page Maine Sunday Telegram story, which was the most read story I wrote in 2021.  The geographic disparities — which roughly align with political leanings at the county level — are stark. From the story:

What is clear is that COVID-19 is thriving in places with low vaccination rates and leaving places with high vaccination rates relatively unscathed.

The geographic disparities in Maine are stark. In Cumberland County on Friday, 81 percent of all residents were fully vaccinated and the densely populated county had the lowest new case loads in the state. In hard-hit Franklin, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Somerset counties, the vaccination rate is just 57 percent to 63 percent, according to the Maine CDC.

In Cumberland County, 26 percent of all 5- to 11-year-olds have been fully vaccinated. In Franklin that figure is 15 percent, in Aroostook 14, and in Somerset just 8.6.

The advice from doctors and public health professionals: get vaccinated, and if you’re vaccinated get a booster, and if you’re indoors in public spaces wear a mask.