For Mike Gutgsell and his family, keeping COVID-19 out of their home in Lisbon Falls is a serious matter.

He still requires customers to wear masks in his metal-polishing shop in South Portland, where 95 percent of all residents are vaccinated.

In Lisbon Falls, where the vaccination rate is 73 percent, Gutgsell’s 91-year-old mother-in-law lives with him and his wife. They share a three-unit farmhouse with his son and daughter-in-law, who had a baby boy in May. All of the adults in the house have been vaccinated.

His sister-in-law used to live in the third apartment in their house. She recently moved in with a friend rather than get vaccinated, despite the family’s urging after the baby was born, Gutgsell said. He hopes she can return soon, but with coronavirus cases rising in Maine and beyond, Gutgsell said it’s not worth the risk.

And his frustration with unvaccinated people is growing.

“It’s perpetuating the situation,” said Gutgsell, 66, wearing a mask in his Ocean Street shop. “If they don’t get vaccinated, it keeps spreading and morphing into something more virulent. And even though we’re fully vaccinated, there are breakthrough cases. I’m not taking any chances.”

As COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations rise across the U.S., some vaccinated Mainers are expressing frustration, anger and ambivalence toward those who remain unvaccinated for political or other reasons not grounded in science.

“Most of the people that are vaccinated or want to be, at this point, are vaccinated,” noted Christopher English, 42, who lives near Lewiston and said he had been inoculated. “If you aren’t (vaccinated), you don’t want to be, so I am a little cynical towards those people. If you don’t want (the vaccine), don’t get it, but you will get sick.”

Still others are adamant about their constitutional right to remain unvaccinated and their concerns about the safety of the vaccines, which have been approved by the federal government as safe for most people and effective in preventing serious illnesses caused by COVID-19.

“I’ve been over the pandemic for a year and a half. We‘re (all) going to get it no matter what and we are all probably going to die from it, so why would I get vaccinated?” said Dale Garland, 32, of Lewiston, where the vaccination rate is 71 percent.

“I say hell no to vaccine mandates,” said Jacob Conrad, 29, also of Lewiston. “You see all the sicknesses still going around with people that are vaccinated.”

From left, Aleck Burnell, Jacob Conrad and Dale Garland said they are opposed to new state and federal guidelines on mask usage in areas of high transmission. “I say hell no to vaccine mandates,” Conrad said. “You see all the sicknesses still going around with people that are vaccinated.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The vaccines are not causing people to get COVID-19, however. In fact, federal officials say 99 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths and 97 percent of hospitalizations have occurred among unvaccinated people, including those who have contracted the delta variant.

Health experts say breakthrough infections among inoculated people remain relatively rare, but vaccine holdouts are creating opportunities for the virus to mutate, grow stronger and move on to others. They say the unvaccinated are driving the latest surge, which is ripping through states with lower inoculation rates, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.

As of Friday, 69 percent of all U.S. counties were seeing either “high” or “substantial” transmission rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some states, mostly in the South, nearly all counties were in those categories.

In Maine, coastal Waldo County was the only region reporting high transmission rates as of Friday, while Hancock County, also on the coast, and Somerset County, in the central and northern part of the state, had substantial transmission rates, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Hancock County had been dropped from the substantial range as of Saturday.

Tensions mounted last week after the U.S. CDC announced that vaccinated people may be able to spread the coronavirus and should resume wearing masks in certain circumstances, acknowledging that the mutated delta variant has reversed promising trends. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, announced Wednesday that Maine would adopt that guidance but would not reinstate a mask mandate at this time.

Ed Marston, 41, of Lewiston says he is not opposed to wearing masks in indoor spaces. “I work in the tampon factory so I’ve been wearing a mask for 20 years, so I don’t care. As far as the pandemic goes, if nurses and doctors think we should wear one, then I go with it.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mask wearing is recommended once again in indoor public spaces in high-transmission or substantial-transmission counties for both unvaccinated and vaccinated people. It’s especially recommended for anyone with vulnerable household members, including young children and people who are elderly, immunocompromised or otherwise at risk of severe disease.

President Biden sparked a backlash Thursday when he announced that all federal employees must be vaccinated or they will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing at work, and be tested regularly for the coronavirus. In Texas, where only 51 percent of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order the same day prohibiting cities and other government entities in that state from enacting vaccine or mask mandates.

Faced with a confusing and polarized response to rising COVID-19 cases, some Mainers have resumed wearing masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of the transmission rates in their communities. It feels like an unfortunate but necessary step backward for many, in a state where 68 percent of eligible people age 12 and older have received their final dose of vaccine, or 60 percent of all 1.3 million residents.

“I’m concerned about getting it and I’m concerned about transmitting it to someone else,” said Norman Abelson, 90, of Wells, where the vaccination rate is 92 percent. An author and former Associated Press reporter, Abelson and his life partner started wearing masks again last week whenever they venture out. Both are vaccinated but their immune systems have been compromised by cancer.

Many Mainers don’t like the idea of masking up again, whether or not they’re vaccinated.

“I hate the masks, can we please just get rid of them? I’m just not going to wear a mask. I’m not vaccinated and I don’t care because I think COVID has been out there for long enough,” said Aleck Burnell, 23, of Lewiston.

Oscar Perkins, 59, of Lewiston, who is vaccinated, said new guidelines from Maine and the CDC on mask usage in areas of high transmission negate the point of vaccinations. “I can see in a public bus or a plane, people should have to wear a mask. But I go grocery shopping and I need to wear a mask? I mean is that fair? To me, no it is not.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think at this point I’m going to take my chances,” said Allan Lobozzo, 63, of Topsham, where the vaccination rate is 95 percent. “I don’t want to go back to masking. I guess if an owner said (masks were required) indoors, or in public places, then I understand that. But I’ve sort of put the mask behind me psychologically. It’s always hard to go backwards.”

But Lobozzo, who said he was vaccinated, has no problem with COVID-19 vaccines being mandated, especially if it’s a job requirement enforced by employers.

“If I’ve got an employer and they want me to wear a shirt and a tie, I do that,” Lobozzo said. “If they don’t want me to have a beard, I shave or I’ll go work somewhere else. The same goes for vaccines. They’re my employer.”

Christian Muhitira, 31, of Lewiston, believes getting vaccinated should be voluntary.

“Vaccines should not be mandated,” Muhitira said. “I come from countries of dictatorships and mandates, so I feel people should be educated and make their own choices. I don’t feel that it should be a mandatory thing.”

Gutgsell, the polishing-shop owner, said he understands why some people question vaccine safety, especially because the issue has become so politicized.

“At the same time, with the delta variant becoming so virulent, I view (the unvaccinated) as not being as socially responsible as they could be,” Gutgsell said. “If they get (COVID-19) and don’t know it, they could pass it on to someone else.”

Kay Mishkin of South Portland talks with a reporter about COVID-19 on Thursday: “I suppose it makes me mad that some people aren’t getting vaccinated, but I can’t do anything about it, so why focus on it?” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Kay Mishkin, one of Gutgsell’s customers who is inoculated, said she believes many unvaccinated people have capitulated to peer pressure and unfounded political fear-mongering. A retired home child care provider, Mishkin worries that mandating vaccination will deepen divisions, and she struggles with hard feelings toward those who refuse to get vaccinated for political or other unfounded reasons.

“It’s hard not to blame them for what’s happened (with the resurgence of COVID-19) in the last month,” said Mishkin, 76, of South Portland. “I try to keep an open mind as to why they don’t want to be vaccinated. I suppose it makes me mad that some people aren’t getting vaccinated, but I can’t do anything about it, so why focus on it?”

Kelly Wood, another of Gutgsell’s customers, has a greater stake in the push to get people vaccinated. She’s a nurse practitioner who has seen firsthand the impact that COVID-19 has had on health care providers and on the cost of health care in the U.S.

“We’re all paying for this pandemic in one way or another,” said Wood, 57, also of South Portland. “I’m hoping that people get the right information and realize it’s kind of a public duty to get vaccinated. And with the delta variant, they might get really sick, and they might get other people really sick, too.”

Kelly Wood of South Portland talks with a reporter about COVID-19 on Thursday: “I’m hoping that people get the right information and realize it’s kind of a public duty to get vaccinated.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But Wood’s experience in urging family members and friends to get vaccinated doesn’t bode well for changing anyone’s mind at this point.

“They don’t think it’s necessary,” Wood said. “They don’t want anyone telling them what to do. Some think it’s a hoax. It’s become a political position for many people and they’re getting more entrenched as time goes by.”

Abelson, the former AP reporter, is a bit more hopeful. He’s upset about the low inoculation rates, and he abhors the “unscientific junk” peddled by “idiot politicians,” he said. But he sees no point in railing against those who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks.

“I’m very sad for the direction this country is heading,” Abelson said. “We’re supposed to care about each other. But arguing and name-calling is fruitless. We need to find a pathway back to at least have a conversation about it. We need to listen and find out why people feel the way they do, and maybe share some facts that might change their minds.”

Staff Writer Johnny Liesman contributed to this report.

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