LEWISTON — Androscoggin County continues to lead the state with the highest per capita number of new COVID-19 cases, double that of Cumberland County, data released Tuesday showed.

Jama Mohamed, director of Youth and Family Services for the Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services of Lewiston gets his COVID-19 vaccine at the B Street Health Center last month. Submitted photo

Statewide cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, but Androscoggin County continues to be a hotspot.

The county’s positivity rate continues to be the highest among all 16 counties at 6.11 percent, compared to the state average of 4.33 percent.

In the last seven days, Androscoggin County’s rate of new COVID-19 cases is 8.35 per 10,000 people; Cumberland County’s is 2.95 per 10,000 people.

In his bi-weekly briefing Tuesday, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said two things are happening in Androscoggin County.

“Focal outbreaks like the one at Bates (College), which thankfully we’re not seeing the intensity of a week or two ago, but we’re still seeing some additional cases,” said Shah.

“We’re also seeing high degrees of community transmission across the county,” Shah said. “This is all the more reason for folks in Androscoggin County” to get vaccinated. “The best way we can get those numbers down and keep people safe is get vaccinated.”

Appointments are available at the Auburn Mall vaccination location run by Central Maine Healthcare, as well as at area pharmacies, the downtown residential B Street Health Center, an upcoming St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center clinic this weekend and more.

Nationwide, African American communities are more likely to be infected than other communities, according to national data, and in some cases their residents are reluctant to get vaccinated.

A leader of Lewiston’s Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services said Tuesday that convincing some to get vaccinated has been a hard sell, especially since the government paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

At first “there was reluctance” to get the vaccine, said MEIRS Executive Director Rilwan Osman, who noted the new Mainer community in Lewiston now numbers between 5,000 and 7,000.

MEIRS did a lot of education about the virus and the vaccine, which helped his community become more open to getting the vaccine, he said in an email.

A pop-up clinic at the B Street Clinic two weeks ago managed to have 25-plus people receive the J & J vaccine, Osman said.

But, “a few days later the issue with the J & J vaccine was announced. That didn’t help,” Osman said. “People are now hesitant with all of the vaccines. We have been checking with those vaccinated to see if they have any issues.” So far none have, he said.

Shah acknowledged Tuesday that the J & J pause “has thrown a monkey wrench into the plan,” even though the odds of getting a blood clot from the vaccine is six out of 6.8 million.

The U.S. CDC is reviewing the decision on the J & J vaccine pause, Shah said. In the meantime, Shah said he encourages everyone to get the Moderna or Pfizer shots, which he said are safe, trustworthy and effective.

The Auburn Mall continues to get three trays, or more than 3,000 first doses, a week from the state, Shah said; that is a higher number than the Auburn Mall was receiving in March.

Lewiston immigrant leader Jama Mohamed, another executive in MEIRS, received his COVID-19 vaccine at the B Street Center, and had it photographed, which he’s shared with others, including the Sun Journal.

He’s encouraging others to get vaccinated because “this is a very serious virus,” Mohamed said. “I want my community to understand if there is any opportunity to get the vaccination, they should” to protect their loved ones from getting COVID-19.

He noted that some people in the community travel overseas to visit family, and getting vaccinated is a good way for those traveling to have protection.

In the early days of COVID-19, Osman said mask wearing compliance was difficult among his community. MEIRS did awareness and education around the importance of mask wearing, and compliance now is good, he said. “Everyone is used to it.”

Shah said when it comes to vaccines, generally there are four groups of people.

The first group was ready to get the shot as soon as they could. The second group is interested in getting a vaccine “when it’s convenient for them.”

The third group is hesitating because they have questions. The fourth group, no matter how many messages they hear from doctors to get a vaccine, their attitude is they’re not going to get a vaccine.

“That latter group, we’re going to keep talking to them,” Shah said.

The Maine CDC is working on social media messages featuring local leaders and doctors talking about why the vaccines are critical, Shah said Tuesday.

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