Somerset County recorded the most single-day cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, as 403 new infections were reported statewide, marking the third consecutive day with numbers exceeding 400.

Although vaccines are available to Maine residents 16 or older, Somerset County is seeing the lowest rate of residents who have received a first dose of vaccine, according to officials.

As of Thursday, 52.18% of Maine residents had received a first dose of vaccine and 40.34% were fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, in Somerset County, 35.29% of residents had received a first dose of vaccine and 34.93% were fully vaccinated.

Of the 403 cases reported Thursday, Somerset County accounted for 38, marking the highest single-day jump in the county since the pandemic began. The last single-day total in Somerset County — 37 — was reported about a week ago.

Betsy Putnam, infection preventionist at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, said she noticed the beginning of this upward trend in mid-March.

“I would say the uptick in cases started around March 18,” Putnam said. “I noticed test volume was increasing, even if our positives weren’t. When I saw an increase in testing, I knew something was afoot.”

To date, the Skowhegan hospital has administered about 7,000 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Lisa Caswell, director of pharmacy. The staff is able to administer up to 500 doses a day, although it typically averages between 400 and 420.

As of Thursday afternoon, Caswell said the hospital, which has been providing the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, will not be receiving any new doses of vaccine next week. However, a few appointments for Monday are still available from the previous week’s allocation.

“We are seeing a very concerning trend,” Caswell said. “We’re seeing (COVID-19) patients in the hospital who are not in their 80s and not in their 90s. We have younger people, in their 40s, being treated at Redington-Fairview for COVID-19.”

The average age of coronavirus patients at Redington-Fairview has been 40. Putnam said patients have been as young as 4 months and old as 96.

The rise in cases is also getting in the way of vaccinations, Caswell said.

“People are either coming in contact with someone with COVID-19 in between first and second doses, and they end up getting their second dose delayed because we can’t bring them into the clinic,” Caswell said. “We’ve even had some infected in between their two doses. It certainly gets in the way of vaccination efforts.”

Putnam, who works in the hospital’s Infection Prevention and Control department, said that age in itself is not a sufficient enough reason to disregard the potential severity of the coronavirus.

“Your age may make you a low-risk category, but it certainly does not mean that there are no risks,” Putnam said. “Even in the mild to moderate COVID-19 cases, we’re seeing significant long-term effects. There can be multisystem effects that people are having to live with. Some of this damage is not reversible.”

She said other factors might be contributing to more younger patients and the increase in cases in those age groups, including the longer access that those 60 or older have had to the vaccine in comparison to adults 18 or older.

Of the 1,772 cases of COVID-19 reported in Somerset County, 408, or 23%, have been recorded over the past 30 days, following a statewide upward trend, along with an increase in hospitalizations.

Although the state announced Thursday it will be receiving 52,660 doses for the state vaccination program, none had been allocated to Redington-Fairview General Hospital by the end of the day, according to Caswell. Enough will be available to the hospital next week for at-home visits.

“Unless J&J is released and they send us some, or our EMS (emergency medical services) department is allocated Moderna vaccine, that is it until the first week of May,” Caswell said.

Distribution of the Moderna vaccine at Redington-Fairview began Dec. 23, when pharmacists, nurses and staff members from medical offices were able to receive the hospital’s first doses under phase 1A. The hospital had also been administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was temporarily halted April 13 following the recommendation of federal agencies. At the time that the J&J vaccine was paused, it had accounted for about 5% to 8% of all vaccine doses given across the state.

The J&J vaccine is a one-shot inoculation, while the Moderna requires two doses.

Caswell said her department has seen a slackening in demand for the COVID-19 vaccination. Not nearly as many patients are now on the waiting list as in previous weeks. This is following another statewide trend: On Tuesday, state officials reported demand for vaccine appointments appeared to be softening in parts of Maine, signaling new challenges for public health officials seeking to reach herd immunity.

Jacqueline Libby receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine April 2 during a clinic at Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Maine started our vaccination journey from a lower relative number of cases, which puts us in a better position to halt the spread, even though it doesn’t seem like it right now, as well as achieve that higher level of immunity,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said Tuesday. “Our goal is to get every single person in Maine who wants to be vaccinated, vaccinated.”

Neither Caswell nor Putnam could pinpoint why vaccination rates in Somerset County are lower than in other parts of Maine. They suggested several community factors, including how the county is laid out geographically and a lack of access in more-rural areas of the county. They said vaccine hesitancy might also be a factor.

Redington-Fairview has offered clinics in Bingham in previous weeks, run by the hospital’s EMS department. The traveling clinics have been put on pause to allow hospital staff members to conduct home visits to vaccinate those in Somerset County who are homebound.

To serve those in the outer reaches of the county, Caswell said, the hospital has formed coalitions with other community groups and partners to ensure rides and vaccine are available.

Caswell said some appointments are available from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday. As more vaccine comes available, the hospital will provide more after-hours slots to accommodate those not able to come during the day.

The consequences of having an increase in community transmission impacts several areas throughout the region, including businesses and schools. Last week, several central Maine schools shifted to remote learning after staff were quarantined following an increase in reported cases.

Chad Gilley

Skowhegan Area High School was impacted heavily in the days prior to April vacation, when 198 students and staff members were asked to quarantine following additional cases of COVID-19. The North Anson-based Carrabec district also opted to finish the week remotely, as did Madison Area Memorial High School.

“Like other Maine counties, Somerset County is experiencing widespread community transmission, which is why it remains extremely important for people in Maine to wear masks in public, adhere to physical distancing guidelines, and continue abiding by all COVID-19 safety protocols,” said Robert Long, spokesperson for Maine CDC.

Businesses have also faced consequences for not following safety guidelines. Last week, Cancun, a restaurant in Waterville, had to close temporarily after staff members were found in violation of several COVID-19 safety requirements, according to state health officials.

As of Thursday, the Maine CDC had tracked 58,868 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 769 deaths since the coronavirus was first detected in Maine in March 2020. Of those reported deaths, 29 were residents of Somerset County.

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