Former U.S. Army combat medic John Stoddard watches his step Friday morning to avoid a puddle while checking a line of vehicles at a drive-through COVID-19 vaccine clinic for veterans on Challenger Drive in Lewiston. The health technician was among several dozen health professionals and staff members outside coordinating and administering shots at the Lewiston VA Clinic. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Androscoggin County is getting hammered by COVID-19.

It posted its highest-ever one-day total for new cases of the potentially deadly disease Friday and took the lead as the Maine county with the most cases per capita since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago.

The county had 119 new cases reported Friday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It also had two new deaths from the coronavirus.

It isn’t clear why Androscoggin County is having a harder time coping with COVID-19 than the rest of Maine.

Part of a recent surge in cases was attributable to a significant outbreak at Bates College, which wound up locking down its student population for 12 days and housing as many as 77 who tested positive in isolation.

But the county’s numbers during the same period far exceed the tally found at Bates, which tests its students three times weekly, making it much more likely that it will notice positive cases without symptoms than any other institution in the area.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine CDC, said Friday that “like almost every other place in Maine, Androscoggin County is experiencing widespread community transmission. The virus that causes COVID-19 is opportunistic and tenacious, which is why wearing masks in public, adhering to physical distancing guidelines, washing hands frequently, avoiding crowds and getting vaccinated are the best things that Maine people can do to protect themselves and each other.”

Androscoggin has had more than 850 cases already this month. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the state has counted 6,259 cases from the county, for an overall positivity rate of 581.3 per 10,000 residents.

Until Friday, York County had held the distinction of the state’s highest positivity rate. But Androscoggin soared into the lead with its new numbers, leaving York in second with a 575.2 rate.

Cases are rising across the state, which has seen its seven-day average more than double in the past month, but Androscoggin County is seeing the most rapid climb.

Oxford County is one of four Maine counties with a positivity rate above 500 for every 10,000 residents. Oxford, York, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties are the only Maine counties with rates higher than the state average of 422 cases per 10,000 residents.

Typical of the small-scale outbreaks that are dotting towns throughout the region is one that occurred recently at a car dealership on Route 26 in South Paris that hopes to resume normal operations next week after struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak that left it short staffed much of the month.

Bessey Motor Sales, in Oxford County, said on its Facebook page that it had “a number of employees who had been exposed” to the coronavirus who ultimately tested positive for the disease.

It closed for several days last week so an outside firm could “perform a deep clean and sanitization” of all of its buildings for remaining employees and its customers.

The dealership said it talked with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention about how to handle the situation. The state CDC said Friday it did not open an outbreak investigation at the business.

The dealership reopened Monday, according to its social media posts, but remained “very short staffed in the services and parts departments.”

Adding to the mix is the reality that Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties are each vaccinating residents much slower than the statewide effort.

Androscoggin County has the worst vaccination rate of any Maine county and Oxford has the second-lowest rate. Both have less than 30% of eligible residents immunized while five counties have rates that top 40%.

One reason Androscoggin may have a lower immunization rate is that its population is younger than most of the rest of Maine so a smaller percentage of its residents qualified for the early rounds of vaccination.

Its rate of first dose-only jabs, while still trailing the state average, is closer to the norm than its final vaccination rate.

Maine as a whole has the highest percentage of its population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The New York Times, which tracks COVID-19 cases in every county across the country, had rated Androscoggin County as a “very high” risk place since mid-February.

It kicked the county into the “extremely high exposure risk” group Wednesday as case numbers rose sharply, all after Bates’ outbreak ended.

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