The new COVID-19 variant sweeping through parts of Europe and the U.S. is the “most concerning” to date and could undermine Maine’s progress by spreading among unvaccinated individuals, the state’s top public health official warned Wednesday.

There have been just four cases detected in Maine of the delta variant first identified in India, but Dr. Nirav Shah with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that it is “almost certainly an undercount.” In a little more than a month, the delta variant went from accounting for just 1 percent of new infections to more than 20 percent in the U.S., according to federal data.

Shah said while existing vaccines are proving effective against the variant, case studies out of Europe and India show that delta is more contagious and more likely to land someone in the hospital than other strains of the coronavirus. So on Wednesday, Shah echoed messages from top federal health officials in urging those “waiting on the sidelines” to get their shots – and, in the process, take advantage of a soon-to-expire sweepstakes offer for the vaccinated.

“The delta variant threatens to undermine the progress that we as a country and we as a state have made against COVID,” Shah said during his weekly briefing. “Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect us all from variants like this. Not being vaccinated leaves you, your family and your community at greater risk.”

Shah made those statements during a week when Maine has been seeing some of the lowest new infection numbers since last summer.

The Maine CDC reported just 13 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, reflecting a sustained, downward trajectory in newly detected infections in the state. Fewer than 50 new cases have been reported to the Maine CDC for the past seven days, with the last three days seeing case counts of 20 or less.

Maine’s seven-day average of new cases declined to 30 on Wednesday, compared to 99 for the week ending June 1 and a springtime high weekly average of 479 in mid-April.

There were two additional deaths reported Wednesday – identified as a man and a woman, one in their 60s and the other in their 80s, from Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. To date, Maine CDC has reported 856 COVID-related deaths since the virus was first detected in the state in March 2020 as well as 68,877 confirmed or probable cases of the disease.

Maine also continues to have among the nation’s highest vaccination rates, although the pace of the inoculation campaign has slowed dramatically in recent weeks.

Health providers had administered a total of 1,509,535 shots in the state since the campaign began in mid-December. Just under 770,000 of those shots were final doses, accounting for 65 percent of the population eligible for inoculation (those age 12 or older) or 57 percent of the state’s total population of 1.3 million.

Only Vermont had a higher fully vaccinated rate as of Wednesday, according to tracking by Bloomberg, and all of the other New England states as well as New Jersey filled out the top seven.

“Those are great numbers and those numbers put us in a strong position to withstand the remainder of the pandemic as is it stands now as well as to be prepared for a potential uptick in cases should that occur at any point in the summer or the fall,” Shah said. “It also puts us in good position to contend with the emergence of more contagious strains of COVID-19, such as the delta variant … So in terms of vaccinations, we are doing well. But we’ve got more to do.”

Last week, the Maine CDC and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills announced a sweepstakes prize — equivalent to $1 for every person in Maine who receives at least one shot by July 4 – as a way to incentivize more vaccinations. Shah said Wednesday that an additional 8,713 people received first shots since the sweepstakes was announced last week – a figure he described as encouraging, but it is fewer than the daily shot totals on many days at the height of the vaccination campaign in March and April.

“It is less about the number and more about who are those folks, and if these are folks who may have previously been uncertain or unsure about whether they wanted to be vaccinated but are now coming forward … then I think that’s a great thing and that’s what matters right now,” Shah said.

The deadline to register for the sweepstakes prize – which stood at $886,042 on Wednesday afternoon – is 11:59 p.m. on June 30. Any Maine resident who has received at least one shot of vaccine between Dec. 15, 2020, and June 30, 2021 is eligible. Registration is available online at govstatus.egov.com/me-sweepstakes-home or by calling the state’s Community Vaccination line at 1-888-445-4111. As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, 226,067 people had registered for the prize, the CDC said.

Following the July 4 announcement of the winner, Shah said, Maine CDC will be attempting to “really zero in on who hasn’t been vaccinated” through analysis of data, surveys and focus groups. A big part of that focus will be removing barriers to vaccination, whether those are transportation or time-off challenges, lingering questions about safety or ideological opposition.

“There is no question that we’ve got more work to do on our outreach efforts to younger, rural populations and younger, rural men in particular,” Shah said. “But I don’t want to stop the analysis there.”

With cases in decline and vaccinations continuing, Shah also announced that the Maine CDC would discontinue its regular weekly media briefings after next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, health care providers continue to partner with businesses, nonprofit groups and event organizers to schedule pop-up clinics around the state.

MaineHealth, for instance, will offer walk-up vaccinations from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday at Thompson’s Point in Portland and at the United Farmer’s Market in Belfast from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, in addition to daily hours at many of the network’s health facilities.

On Thursday, Northern Light Mercy Hospital will offer a vaccination clinic at the Lakes Region Recovery Center in Bridgton from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Northern Light Health, meanwhile, will offer walk-up vaccinations at two Bangor Pride events this week: at the Bangor Drive-In Takeover beginning at 7 p.m. Friday and from 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Bangor Pride Stationary Parade at Hollywood Casino.

COVID-19 vaccines are free and available to anyone age 12 or older.

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