COVID-19 delta variant puts western and central Maine towns at risk

·4 min read

Jul. 1—LEWISTON — A number of western and central Maine towns have yet to reach the threshold of either a 60% COVID-19 vaccination rate or less than 2,000 people remaining unvaccinated, leaving greater opportunity for the highly contagious delta variant to take hold.

At the final regularly scheduled COVID-19 media briefing Wednesday, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah warned that although testing has only identified four cases of the strain, based on its spread in the rest of the country Maine people should assume "there's a chance that the delta variant will come here."

"If the delta variant comes here, for those who are vaccinated it will not necessarily change the way that they've gone about things," Shah said. "But for those in Maine who have not yet been vaccinated, the delta variant has the potential to spread, particularly in large pockets of unvaccinated places in Maine — certain counties where vaccination rates are lower than they are elsewhere."

ZIP code-level data from the Maine CDC on vaccination rates show there are large swaths of the tri-county area at risk due to the number of unvaccinated people residing there. That data categorizes every ZIP code in Maine by four categories: red, yellow, blue or green.

Red and yellow mean that there are more than 2,000 residents who are not vaccinated; red and blue means that less than 60% of the population is fully vaccinated. A green designation means that more than 60% of the population are vaccinated and less than 2,000 residents remain unvaccinated.

As of the June 28 update, there are 16 ZIP codes in the tri-county area that are yellow or blue. Those include: in Auburn, Leeds, Lewiston, Livermore Falls and Sabattus in Androscoggin County; Eustis, Farmington, Phillips and Wilton in Franklin County; and Andover, Dixfield, Greenwood, Hiram, Porter, Rumford and Sumner in Oxford County.

And although the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use in people 12 years and older, demographic data indicates that adolescents 11 years and younger do not account for the low vaccination rates in these areas because there are more unvaccinated people than there are individuals in those age groups.

The population of Lewiston, for example, is 68.2% fully vaccinated but there are more than 11,800 individuals unvaccinated. As of the latest census data, there are 5,959 adolescents under the age of 15 living in Lewiston.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said at a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing last month that delta variant poses "a real danger" to unvaccinated people and warned that the variant could cause "localized surges" of COVID-19.

"All of that is totally and completely avoidable by getting vaccinated," Fauci said.

Shah said Wednesday that neither state nor federal guidance on mask-wearing for fully vaccinated individuals is likely to change due to the emergence of this strain. Los Angeles County recently recommended that all individuals, even those fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors due a surge in cases there related to the delta variant.

Shah made his remarks alongside Gov. Janet Mills and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Dr. Jeanne Lambrew on the same day the state's civil state of emergency expired.

"I want to clear: The end of the civil state of emergency is not the end of the pandemic," Mills said. "My administration and medical providers across the state encourage everyone to get their shot."

The July 4 weekend will be another test for the vaccines' ability to protect against COVID-19. Shah has emphasized repeatedly that the three vaccines available in the U.S. — Pfizer Bio-NTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are remarkably effective at combating the disease and its variants.

"The vaccines are key here and we have undersold their effectiveness. The COVID-19 vaccines have fundamentally altered our relationship to COVID-19," he said.

Statewide, 66.4% of all eligible Maine people — those 12 years and older — are fully vaccinated and 58.5% of all Mainers are fully vaccinated.

In Androscoggin County, 50.7% of all residents are fully vaccinated and in Franklin and Oxford counties, 49.8% and 50%, respectively, have received their final shots. Those numbers rise to 59.2% in Androscoggin County, 56.4% in Franklin County and 56.1% in Oxford County, when considering only those eligible to receive the vaccine.

Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long confirmed that as of Thursday morning, the agency is not investigating any outbreaks in the tri-county area.

State health officials reported 21 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, including two in Androscoggin County, four in Franklin County and three in Oxford County. There was one additional death.

The seven-day average of new daily cases of COVID-19 in western and central Maine on Thursday remained higher than the statewide average of 0.18 cases per 10,000 residents. Androscoggin County on Thursday saw an average of 0.29 new daily cases per 10,000 residents over the past seven days. Franklin County, which is seeing a small surge in cases, had 0.66 cases per 10,000 and Oxford County had 0.2 cases per 10,000.

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