Maine’s rural counties continue to lag behind the more populous regions in COVID-19 vaccinations with boosters accounting for the bulk of shots administered in recent days, leading the state to say it must do more in farther-flung regions.
Overall vaccine uptake has picked up in the past few weeks amid surging cases statewide and fears about the new omicron variant, with nearly 90,000 booster shots and 25,000 new first doses administered since the start of December, according to state and federal data.
But wide geographic disparities continue, with rural counties seeing the highest COVID-19 case rates losing ground on highly vaccinated areas of late. While differing attitudes about the vaccine may play some role, access has also been more limited in rural areas, something state health officials say they are trying to address.
“We’ve got more work to do in rural counties,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Thursday. “That’s the bottom line.”
Maine continues to maintain among the highest vaccination rates in the U.S., with more than 80 percent of people having received at least one dose. Rates vary widely and correlate with infection rates.
As of Thursday, the four Maine counties with the lowest seven-day case rates — Cumberland, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc — were also the four counties with the highest shares of their populations fully vaccinated. More than 90 percent of eligible Cumberland County recipients have gotten the vaccine, according to federal data, compared with just shy of 64 percent in Somerset County, Maine’s least vaccinated. That gap is not narrowing.
Since the start of December, more than 6,600 Cumberland County residents, about 2.2 percent of the county’s population, have newly received their first vaccine doses. Thirty-six percent of residents have now received a booster dose in total. Residents of York and Oxford counties, along with Cumberland, have gotten shots at the highest rate over the past two weeks.
By contrast, just over 600 Somerset County residents, about 1.2 percent of the county’s population, have newly received first doses since the start of December, while only 22 percent of residents have received a booster dose at all so far.
There are more opportunities to receive shots in more populous parts of the state right now, particularly as pharmacies facing shortages of workers have cut back on hours. Large-scale clinics offering walk-in shots are currently available in Auburn, Augusta, South Portland and Sanford, while residents of more rural areas largely rely on smaller providers.
At Savage’s Drug, which has pharmacies in Fairfield, Oakland and Unity, workers have been busy mostly giving boosters to adults and initial doses to children, the latter of which pharmacist Shane Savage chalked up to parents wanting their kids vaccinated going into the holidays and playing winter sports. He regularly sees up to 60 walk-ins per day in Oakland, with only three or four of them being adults getting first doses.
But Savage said he is also seeing people who were previously hesitant coming in to get first shots. Some are looking to travel for the winter season, but others say they needed more time to feel the vaccine was safe. Some cite rising hospitalizations or the illness of a loved one.
He said that is a good sign that attitudes might be changing, although he also feels there is also a core group that will never get vaccinated. Interest may not match availability as larger chains have struggled amid staffing shortages, he thought.
“The attitudes are a lot better than they were a year ago,” Savage said.