Two top national experts say the sustained high rate of COVID-19 infections in Maine is difficult to fully explain, but both said it’s clear that unvaccinated populations continue to drive new cases.

Even in highly-vaccinated areas, there are still large numbers of people who are unprotected and provide fuel for the virus to spread, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist and a member of President Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board.

“There is more than enough human wood to burn through – people who are not vaccinated or previously infected – to keep this pandemic forest fire going,” he said.

Maine reported 601 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and seven additional deaths. The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 487.3 on Friday, compared to 470.1 a week ago and 589 a month ago. Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 107,074 cases of COVID-19, and 1,204 deaths.

According to data updated every Friday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, unvaccinated people have contracted COVID-19 at much higher rates, accounting for 86 percent of all COVID-19 cases since vaccinations became widely available this spring.

Of the 71,871 COVID-19 cases in Maine since vaccinations became easily available, 10,104 cases have occurred among vaccinated people, or 14 percent of the total. Those who are vaccinated and still contract COVID-19 are much less likely to have severe cases compared to the unvaccinated.

Unvaccinated people also account for most of those hospitalized and in intensive care units in Maine, officials say. Hospitalizations remained at near record levels in Maine on Friday, with 223 COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals, including 78 in critical care and 38 on ventilators.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday that there are “confounding multiple factors” contributing to the ongoing surge of cases in Maine. He also said the science is clear that unvaccinated people are at much greater risk.

Fauci was responding to a question from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who cited the state’s high infection rate even as it also has one of the country’s highest vaccination rates. Maine’s vaccination rate is about 71 percent, fourth-highest in the country behind Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, according to the Bloomberg News Vaccine Tracker.

“A vaccinated compared to an unvaccinated person has a multifold less likelihood of being infected, a multifold less likelihood of being hospitalized or dying,” Fauci said. “I think there were probably confounding multiple factors going into the difficult situation that your citizens in your state are going through, but there’s no doubt that the vaccines are clearly much better in the sense of protecting you from infection, hospitalizations or death, compared to the unvaccinated.”

Maine had the 18th-highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the nation Friday, with 35 cases per 100,000 population on a seven-day rolling average, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The national average is 22 cases per 100,000. New Hampshire and Vermont also have infection rates well above the national average.

Meanwhile, cases have declined nationally from a peak of about 150,000 daily in late summer to about 75,000 per day now, on a seven-day average.

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, has said in recent weeks that the uneven vaccination rates in parts of Maine are a contributing factor, leaving pockets of unvaccinated people to spread the disease. Cumberland County’s 80 percent vaccination rate, for instance, is about 20 percentage points higher than in rural counties like Franklin, Piscataquis, Somerset and Oxford.

Shah also has said the state’s previous low case counts are among the reasons the delta variant surge has been sustained in Maine while subsiding in other parts of the country. The much more contagious delta variant is burning through unvaccinated populations, he has said, and Maine’s low case counts during much of the pandemic means that unvaccinated populations had little natural immunity to COVID-19 when the delta variant hit.

In Maine, 8 percent of the population has contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic, according to official statistics, although the actual percentage is much higher because many infected people with mild symptoms would not have been tested and their cases weren’t reported. Only Vermont and Hawaii have experienced fewer COVID-19 case counts per capita than Maine since the beginning of the pandemic.

Osterholm told the Press Herald in a phone interview Friday that COVID-19 continues to defy projections and modeling. And Maine isn’t alone in experiencing high infections despite having high vaccination rates.

In Europe, where vaccination rates are also high, cases seemed to be dwindling, but there has been a resurgence recently, he said. And Minnesota, which also has high vaccination rates, has gone through several surges, and currently has the second-highest COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation.

Even in these areas, he said, the virus can find and infect enough unprotected people to keep spreading.

Meanwhile, federal regulators this week approved the Pfizer vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds, and the rollout for that age group began in Maine this week, with more school-based and community clinics expected to open in the coming weeks.

Shah, in Thursday’s media briefing where he appeared with Association of State and Territorial Health officials, said one of the big challenges with the pediatric rollout will be combating misinformation about the vaccine. Rumors have spread about the COVID-19 vaccines, with one of the most common being the false claim that the vaccines can cause fertility problems. The vaccines have no affect on fertility, according to the U.S. CDC.

Shah said misinformation “complicates efforts” by “shifting the conversation away from answering honest, earnest questions” by spreading “bad faith nonsense.”

“Parents end up not knowing what to believe, so they believe nothing,” Shah said. He said one-on-one conversations with pediatricians should help correct misinformation, but it will be a challenge.

A national survey conducted in October by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 27 percent of American families were ready to get their elementary-aged children vaccinated as soon as it’s approved. However, 35 percent say they definitely will not or will only do so if required. One-third are in the “wait and see” category.

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