As the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 continues its spread across much of Maine, levels of community transmission remain the highest in Somerset and Piscataquis counties where vaccine rates are the lowest.

State health officials reported 925 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday but no additional deaths, making it the third straight day with more than 800 cases. Some of the cases reported Thursday date back a week or more due to a backlog of positive test results that’s affecting daily case reports and seven-day averages.

Amid the surge of cases, Somerset remains the lowest vaccinated county, with 53% of the population fully vaccinated. Piscataquis has 55% of its residents vaccinated. These numbers trail the state’s total of about 65% who are fully vaccinated.

Officials in Somerset County said Thursday that cloth masks have been available to municipalities that request them and that efforts had been made earlier in the pandemic to coordinate resources. But Michael Smith, the county’s emergency management director, said that level of coordination has not continued.

“We did early on offer cloth masks to each town office for distribution,” Smith said. “We delivered a supply of cloth masks to all town offices who requested them. We do still have a supply of cloth masks, and know that we can acquire more if our towns want them for distribution.”

Other personal protective equipment is intended for health care facilities and first-responder agencies. Smith said his agency worked with its liaison with the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to coordinate vaccination clinics through Skowhegan’s Redington-Fairview General Hospital to inoculate first responders in the county.

Positivity rates are one of the metrics used by the Maine CDC to determine the impact COVID-19 is having on a county, CDC spokesman Robert Long said, noting that, “Somerset County has among the highest rates for both the most recent 14-day and 28-day periods.”

While Piscataquis County had the highest level of community transmission Thursday, at 744.7 cases per 100,000 residents, Somerset trailed just behind with 681.4 per 100,000.

Alan Duplessis of Jackman receives a Moderna vaccination shot Thursday from medical assistant Kristy Griffin at Jackman Community Health Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“In sparsely populated counties, it’s more challenging to confirm that transmission is greater in one community than in others,” Long said. “One general corollary has been that transmission rates tend to be higher in places with lower vaccination rates.”

At Northern Light Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield, officials reported they had six patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

“We are seeing sicker, unvaccinated patients,” said Tracy Bonney-Corson, vice president of nursing and patient care services. “The severity of illness is requiring pre-ventilator breathing support.”

She said that while hospitalizations continue to increase throughout the state, emergency departments are also seeing additional COVID-19 patients and a “significant increase in outpatient testing positivity rates.”

“In previous surges patients were avoiding medical care, but we are not seeing that same trend in this surge,” Bonney-Corson said. These patients have been “predominately unvaccinated.”

Vaccination efforts continue at the Pittsfield hospital, with a flu and COVID-19 vaccination clinic offered this Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. at The Millennium in Palmyra. The hospital also offers vaccines by appointment at multiple locations, with additional information available on its website, northernlighthealth.org/Sebasticook-Valley-Hospital.

Officials at Redington-Fairview General Hospital were not available for comment Thursday but the hospital’s efforts to vaccinate the community have been ongoing, including clinics at the Skowhegan State Fair, Skowhegan Craft Brew Festival and at Hight Family of Dealerships in Skowhegan.

Redington-Fairview General Hospital is also offering a flu and coronavirus vaccine clinic on Saturday, from 8 a.m. to noon at the hospital’s campus.

“Residents of places with higher positivity rates, such as Somerset County, should get vaccinated if they have not already done so and wear masks in indoor public settings, as recommended by the U.S. CDC,” Long said.

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