AUGUSTA — Maine is experiencing sustained high COVID-19 case rates, with 225 people hospitalized as of Nov. 10. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at his weekly media briefing Wednesday that two weeks ago, 209 people were hospitalized in Maine with the virus.

“What is going on?” he asked. Maine is seeing some of its highest sustained daily case rates since January, or perhaps, since the pandemic began, he said.

Even though Maine has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with 71.2% of the entire population now fully vaccinated, there are great variations within the state. These “pockets” of unvaccinated people represent tens of thousands of residents in those counties who are at risk, he said, adding that, “If 71.2% were spread evenly, our daily case rates might be lower.”

Shah said the difference between the areas with the highest vaccination rates and those with the lowest is between 17% and 20%. “In epidemiological terms, that is significant,” he noted.

Adding to the disparity, he said, is the fact that the unvaccinated pockets are primarily in rural communities with lower levels of background immunity, where until recently there had been lower levels of infection throughout the pandemic. 

These areas have lower levels of vaccine-derived immunity, as well as immunity derived from actually getting the disease. Up until now, he said, these communities were insulated from COVID-19, with lower rates of infection. But with the onslaught of the highly transmissible delta variant, everything has changed. 

“The delta variant has blown through that insulation,” Shah said. “When you combine lower vaccine-based immunity with the also low levels of preexisting viral immunity, what you get is, in effect, gasoline on fire.”

Shah said the high number of cases is not likely to change in the near future. Winter is a time when people congregate inside, he noted, along with the prevailing cooler, dryer air, which makes it easier for the virus to spread and enter the body.

Which way the case counts go depends on how many people get vaccinated or the extent to which they get infected, he said, both of which will generate immunity that will ultimately result in a decline in cases in rural communities.

Kids are also playing a role in driving transmission and case rates, he said. In the past 14 days in Maine, there have been 1,483 cases of COVID-19 in kids 12 years old or younger, which represents 21% of all cases reported in that period. There are now five children in the state 18 and younger in the hospital; six children were hospitalized in the past 30 days, and one is currently in an ICU, he said.

At the same time, Shah noted that 96,500 5- to 11-year-olds just became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine and as they get vaccinated, “which they are (doing),” they will create epidemiological barriers to block the virus from spreading.

Maine CDC is making it as easy as it can to get as many kids vaccinated as possible, he said, with over 150 school-based clinics available, pop-up clinics at hospitals, along with working pediatricians’ and family practitioners’ offices to make sure the vaccine is available. All Walmart pharmacies in Maine are administering the 5-to-11 vaccine

Shah said 3,150 kids aged 5 to 11 have gotten the vaccine so far, and anticipated the effort would be ramping up in the coming weeks.

COVID-19 vaccines continue to be the best defense against lowering the chance of getting severely ill, ending up in the hospital or even dying from the virus, he said. Ninety-nine percent of all fully vaccinated people in Maine have not gotten the disease. By comparison, he said, about two thirds of all people admitted to Maine hospitals with COVID recently were not fully vaccinated.

Masking remains important, along with testing, which he said is part of a package of mitigation techniques including washing hands, booster shots and staying home if feeling sick.

Speaking about breakthrough cases of COVID-19, Shah said nothing is 100% effective. “Tylenol is not 100% effective, no antibiotic is 100% effective, no surgery is 100% effective,” he said.

“What we do have are vaccines that are on the order of 85% to 90% effective,” Shah said. “Are they 100%, no — nothing ever is, and that’s why we are seeing about 1% of breakthrough cases.”

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services said recent data published by her office shows 97.7% of all health care workers are now fully vaccinated as of the end of October.  

DHHS also updated its final rule on vaccines required by designated health care facility workers to include the COVID-19. Jails in Maine were not part of the designated facilities, Lambrew noted, when asked by a reporter. 

Lambrew said DHHS would be transitioning from survey to compliance mode on health care worker vaccinations and by mid-December would be expecting agency reports.

Two additional COVID-19-related deaths, a man and a woman in their 70s and 80s, were reported Wednesday, Nov. 10. One person was from Hancock County and the other was from York County. The total number of deaths in the state now stands at 1,217.

The seven-day positivity rate jumped to 6.9% from 5.45% two weeks ago, and the testing volume increased to 555 people per 100,000, from 500 tests administered two weeks ago. As noted previously, 225 people are currently hospitalized, up from 209 two weeks ago; 69 people are in ICUs, down from 74 people two weeks ago; 29 are on ventilators.

Right now, 7,264 doses of vaccine are being administered daily across the state, a 40% increase in vaccinations in the past two weeks.

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