Dr. Sarah Skelton of Auburn gives Owen Fish of Lisbon Falls a COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination site at the Auburn Mall. Skelton is a volunteer at the mass vaccination site. Fish is a senior at Lisbon High School. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON – Vaccination appointments are going unclaimed as Androscoggin County continues to be a COVID-19 hot spot with the highest positivity rate in the state.

On Wednesday evening, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 625 people for every 10,000 residents in Androscoggin County had tested positive for the disease, compared to the statewide rate of 439.8 people per 10,000 residents.

The county also trails behind in vaccine administrations, ranking 13th among Maine’s 16 counties for first dose administrations and last in final dose administrations.

Statewide, 52.2% of all Mainers eligible to receive the vaccine have gotten at least one dose, and 40.3% are completely vaccinated. In Androscoggin County, 45.4% of those eligible had received at least one shot and just 33% had completed vaccinations as of Wednesday.

At Thursday’s media briefing, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said there is a “concern” for why Androscoggin County’s case and positivity rates are high.

“The epidemiology here probably was related to a sizable outbreak at Bates (College), but that outbreak has largely subsided,” Shah said.

The latest round of testing at the Lewiston college found two new cases, a student and an employee. There are six active cases among students and two among staff. A total of 118 members of the Bates community have recovered from COVID-19.

“But these things are not distinct from one another,” Shah said. “Cases at Bates are also a function of cases in the community and vice versa.”

The rise in cases is not driven by outbreaks, he said, but by community transmission.

Shah said it is not clear why Androscoggin County’s vaccination rates remain low compared to the rest of the state, and how access to vaccine supplies or hesitancy plays into that.

“We don’t have a good sense of that. That’s a difficult thing to quantify, track and measure,” he said.

Confidence in the vaccine “is not a monolithic thing.”

Despite the trends, Shah said he did not expect it to have any impact on ending testing and quarantine requirements for all travelers from outside Maine on May 1.

Steve Costello from St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center said that only about 280 of the 800 available slots had been booked by Thursday morning for Saturday’s clinic at Longley Elementary School in Lewiston.

“(It) looks like it will fall more into the 300-350 range or possibly less if the pace of interest does not increase,” Costello said.

Rilwan Osman, executive director of Lewiston’s Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, told the Sun Journal earlier this week that the organization has made strides with their educational efforts on the virus and the vaccine, but the pause on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine “didn’t help.”

There are between 5,000 and 7,000 New Mainers residing in Lewiston, Osman said.

According to data from the CDC, 76.1% of first dose administration went to white residents in Androscoggin County and 1.7% went to those who identified as Black or African-American. Those rates are even lower statewide.

About 2.4% of Androscoggin County’s residents are Black or African-American, according to the most recent census data from 2019.

Shah said the Auburn Mall clinic will continue to get three trays of the Pfizer vaccination, more than 3,000 doses, a week. The clinic is run by Central Maine Healthcare. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 75 appointments available out of the 500 slots set aside for first doses, spokesperson Ann Kim said. Another 836 people are receiving their second dose.

Hospitalizations in the area remain high, with Central Maine Medical Center reporting 22 hospitalizations on Thursday, 16 of whom are in intensive care and three connected to ventilators. The seven-day average at CMMC increased to 25 from last Thursday’s average of 22.

St. Mary’s reported three hospitalizations, a significant drop from last week’s high of 12. Across the state, there are 119 hospitalizations. 48 of those are in critical care and 18 on ventilators.

State health officials also reported 403 new cases on Thursday, a drop from Wednesday’s case count of 500.

The state reported one death each on Thursday and Wednesday. The deaths were a man in his 70s in Kennebec County and a woman in her 70s in Androscoggin County, respectively.

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