A sign from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife hangs on the door of Ben's Trading Post in Presque Isle on March 1. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

HOULTON, Maine — One out of every 100 Aroostook County residents tested positive for COVID-19 in the past month in what has been the largest surge of cases since the start of the pandemic.

Twelve people have died and 702 have tested positive for COVID-19 in Aroostook County just since Aug.12.

For six days, Aroostook — a large, rural county with just 67,000 residents — had the highest virus transmission rate in the state. That streak was finally broken Tuesday as the estimated active case count fell by 184. The current count is 297.

The wave of outbreaks has been exacerbated by the start of the new school year, and the most severe cases filling Aroostook’s hospital beds and ICU wards are unvaccinated people.

Across Maine and the U.S., the sickest COVID-19 patients tend to be unvaccinated. Northern Light hospitals published statewide data at the beginning of the month that showed that very few of the patients on ventilators and in ICUs were fully vaccinated.

The pattern holds true in The County — where the number of new people getting the vaccine fell off dramatically over the summer, and has stagnated at around 60 percent.

“[Medical workers] are extraordinarily tired, no question about that,” Cary Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Regen Gallagher said. “They want folks to do the right thing. They want people to get vaccinated, to stay home when they get sick.”

Half of all people checking into Houlton Regional Hospital last week were COVID-19 patients, and of those, roughly 80 percent were unvaccinated, Dr. John Holder, a physician at the hospital said at an RSU 29 school board meeting Monday night.

At Cary Medical Center, Gallagher said that only one of the COVID-positive people admitted to the hospital in the past month was fully inoculated against the virus — and they were admitted for an ailment other than their COVID-19 symptoms.

In the first two weeks of September alone, the number of positive cases recorded at hospitals already exceeds that of previous months. Cary Medical reported 42 positive tests in the first half of September, compared with 30 in the entire month of August, and just two in July.

Houlton Regional Hospital has seen 17 positive cases out of roughly 320 tests since the start of the month. Katahdin Valley Health Center in Houlton also logged an additional 19 positive cases since Sept. 1.

People getting sick with COVID-19 are younger now than ever. The majority of positive tests at Cary Medical Center in the past month were children under 18, Gallagher said.

More than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in schools across Maine this month.

After most schools began the semester with optional masking policies, spikes in COVID-19 cases among the student body led to major outbreaks in several County schools — and most districts have now moved to implement mask mandates.

Houlton’s school district, RSU 29, announced Monday that all schools in the district were switching to full-time remote learning for two weeks after educators discovered an estimated 75 percent of middle school students and 25 percent of high school students would have to quarantine.

The announcement came shortly after Houlton Elementary School had to shut down entirely due to a high number of kids exposed.

“Of the 17 positives this month, four of those were school-aged children, so we are starting to see more kids becoming positive,” Ellen Bartlett, the infection preventionist at Houlton Regional, said. “I do feel at this time masks are strongly needed if we are going to get through this school year and for our kids to stay in school and participate in sports.”

Houlton isn’t the only school in Aroostook that has had to switch to the red model. Van Buren and Caribou high schools, as well as Limestone Community School all have had periods of remote learning since the start of the school year, but have since resumed normal activities.

If cases don’t subside soon, Aroostook could face a grim winter with hospitals inundated and more students forced into remote learning. Gallagher of Cary Medical said the worst may still be to come.

“The fact that we haven’t even had winter yet, that this is happening while it’s still nice outside … doesn’t make me feel at ease about what’s going to happen,” she said.

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.