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The Delta Variant Is Hammering Maine Towns With The Lowest Vaccination Rates

Linda Coan O'Kresik
Masked and unmasked pedestrians walk along Central Street in Bangor on Wednesday.

The Maine communities with the lowest vaccination rates have seen the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in recent months amid the onset of the delta variant, an analysis of the state’s town-by-town data from the past 4 1/2 months shows.

The rate of new cases over the past 4 1/2 months in communities where more than 90 percent of residents were partially or fully vaccinated was nearly 40 percent lower than in communities with inoculation rates below 70 percent. The data demonstrate the great leaps that many of Maine’s most vaccinated communities have made to contain the virus amid the delta variant, but also the danger that could loom in rural, less vaccinated sections as the flu season approaches.

The numbers also show an increasing divide in the state between southern Maine and the more rural areas of the state. The highest case rates were previously centered in ZIP codes containing larger Maine municipalities like Portland, Lewiston, Biddeford, Sanford and Kittery. But now, they are in communities like Guilford (where 29 percent of residents are unvaccinated), Levant (where 26 percent are unvaccinated), Houlton (29 percent) and Madison (36 percent).

The data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention cover case numbers from 163 Maine ZIP codes between May 3 and Sept. 19.

They do not include exact case numbers for any Maine ZIP codes with populations of fewer than 2,000 people, except the ZIP code containing the Hancock County town of Frenchboro, which has seen no cases. The data also do not include case numbers for seven ZIP codes with populations of more than 2,000 people. The Maine CDC does not publish exact case numbers in many smaller communities for privacy reasons.

Penobscot County, which has been a hotspot for cases in Maine in recent weeks, saw the most spread in ZIP codes containing rural communities outside of Bangor like Carmel, Levant, Corinth and Newport. All have far lower vaccination rates than in the ZIP code that covers the city of Bangor, as well as Hermon, Glenburn and Veazie.

The virus has the greatest possibility to spread in locations where there are clusters of unvaccinated people, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said.

“The structure of who is vaccinated makes a lot of impact on where the virus can spread,” Shah said. “That’s really what we are seeing in Maine.”

Residents of communities with higher vaccination rates simply face fewer opportunities to be exposed to someone with the virus, said Dr. Noah Nesin, chief medical officer at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor.

Nesin said that death rates were also much higher in unvaccinated communities nationwide. He noted a CNN report from Wednesday that found that the death rate was four times higher in the least vaccinated states than in the most vaccinated ones.

Similarly, death rates are higher in Maine’s least vaccinated counties, though those numbers include deaths that occurred before the widespread availability of the vaccine.

There is evidence more Mainers are getting vaccinated. The Maine CDC reported 1,278 newly vaccinated people on Wednesday, including 164 in Penobscot County. About 68 percent of all Mainers and 77 percent of those who are eligible have received at least one shot.

Nesin said hesitancy is likely dissipating as people see the real effect that the delta variant can have on loved ones or others in their community.

“It is now a choice between getting vaccinated or getting delta,” Nesin said. “They see this as a very serious disease that isn’t just going to go away.”

Of the communities included in the data, the ZIP code for Lebanon, which is in York County, had the lowest vaccination rate at 56 percent. Thirty-one ZIP codes, primarily in Cumberland and York counties, have vaccination rates of 99 percent, according to the Maine CDC data, though those rates are undoubtedly lower due to the effect of population growth on the data. Seasonal residents who were vaccinated in Maine are also included.

While the numbers clearly show that higher vaccination rates can help prevent spread, they also show that the relationship isn’t perfect. Searsport had one of the highest case rates over the past 4 1/2 months, but also sported a vaccination rate of 92 percent.

Besides Frenchboro, the ZIP code containing Van Buren saw the lowest rate of new cases, with seven cases coming through a ZIP code with a population of about 2,300. The town’s vaccination rate is 80 percent.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.