COVID-19 is spreading faster in three rural Maine counties than nearly anywhere else in the United States.

Franklin County in western Maine has the fourth highest per-capita rate of new COVID-19 infections out of 3,243 counties nationwide, with Aroostook and Piscataquis immediately behind in the fifth and sixth slots.

Franklin has had an average of 44 new cases each day for the week ending Thursday, a rate of 145 new infections per 100,000 people, the fourth fastest spread of the virus in the entire country, according to the New York Times’ tracker, which compiles official data from state and local health agencies across the country. It was not far behind the worst counties in the country, Pike and Piatt in southern and central Illinois and Tompkins in upstate New York, which have rates between 150 and 171 per 100,000.

Aroostook County is currently number five in the nation at 143 per 100,000. Piscataquis County is sixth at 142 per 100,000, just one per capita case higher than the seventh-ranked Jefferson County, a rural jurisdiction in southern Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky.

All three Maine counties have relatively low vaccination rates, with between 59 and 64 percent of the population fully vaccinated, compared to the statewide average of 70 percent, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In contrast, Cumberland County has a vaccination rate of 82 percent according to federal data – the eighth highest rate in the United States – and the per capita new case average is just 49 per 100,000.

New cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have closely tracked vaccination rates across the state, with the vast majority of seriously ill Mainers being unvaccinated, hospitals have reported for many months. 

Franklin County’s only hospital, Franklin Memorial in Farmington, saw its COVID inpatient burden nearly double for the week ending Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo

The next worst Maine county was Oxford with 118 new cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, a figure that placed it 22nd in the nation.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah on Thursday cautioned against reading too much into the trend, given how the disease flares in one place and then another.

“A lot of these metrics depend on when you take a look at them, on where you start and stop the tape,” Shah said. “As a state, Maine is nowhere near the top, but you can always subdivide into areas that are smaller and have substantially higher transmission rates.”

Maine as a whole is now the third worst state in the country by the same metric – new cases per capita – with 91 per 100,000, according to the Times data. The worst two states are also in New England: Rhode Island (with 103 per 100,000) and New Hampshire (91.) 

Hospitalizations typically lag exposure by about two weeks in those people acutely affected by the disease. Franklin County’s only hospital, Franklin Memorial in Farmington, saw its COVID inpatient burden nearly double for the week ending Thursday to an average of 6.4 people being cared for each day, up from 3.7 last week, but less than its peak of 7.6 per day in late October.

The two major hospitals serving western Maine – MaineGeneral in Augusta and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston – have both had a brutal fall, setting COVID patient records for their facilities and both remained at high levels the week ending Thursday.

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