Franklin County moved into a “substantial” level of community transmission of COVID-19 Thursday, meaning the state recommends that all people, regardless of vaccination status, mask up while indoors.

It was the first day the county moved above “moderate” levels of transmission since Maine announced its new masking guidance this week, reflecting the rising rates of infection there and across the state.

Aroostook County also moved into the substantial category, joining Cumberland, Lincoln, Penobscot, Piscataquis and York counties. Waldo County has been in the high range of community transmission for multiple days.

There were four new cases of COVID-19 in Franklin County reported Thursday, for a total of 1,426 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Neighboring Androscoggin and Oxford counties reported nine and six cases, respectively.

State health officials reported a total of 152 new cases statewide and no additional deaths. Fifteen residents of Franklin County have died from complications due to COVID-19 since March 2020.

The seven-day average of new cases in Franklin County stood at 0.72 per 10,000 residents Thursday, a twofold increase from last week.

A substantial or high rate of transmission means there is more of the virus circulating in a community. Not only does universal masking protect individuals from contracting the disease, but it helps slow the spread of the virus, which is vital to not overwhelm health care systems.

“We don’t want to overload our health care system again,” Joanne Kenny-Lynch, system director of infection prevention at Central Maine Healthcare, said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re seeing that across the county, with unvaccinated people continuing to get sick. When you have your own unvaccinated and they get sick, it’s putting pressure on the health care system.”

In Franklin County, 58% of eligible residents 58% have received their final shots, just below Oxford County’s 58.8% vaccination rate. Only two other counties have a lower vaccination rate than Franklin: Piscataquis and Somerset. Just over 69% of all Mainers, age 12 years and older, are fully inoculated.

A spokesperson for Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, a 65-bed community hospital in the Franklin Community Health Network, said early Thursday afternoon that there were no COVID-19 in-patients.

Across the state, 44 people were hospitalized Thursday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Eighteen of those in-patients were in critical care, and seven were on a ventilator.

MaineHealth, Franklin Community Health Network’s parent organization, announced earlier this week that it will require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1. MaineHealth includes Western Maine Health in Oxford County and Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, as well as the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center, in Portland.

“The vaccines are very effective, and are preventing hospitalizations and health complications with COVID-19,”Dr. Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer, said in a statement. “In addition, the vaccines are proven safe — we have a full year of data from the clinical trials and almost 200 million Americans have received a COVID-19 vaccination. To be consistent with our values and to protect our colleagues, families, patients and communities, we believe it is paramount that all care team members be vaccinated.”

About 71% of Franklin Memorial’s 685 staff members were vaccinated as of June 30. Since May, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services requires hospitals and other health care facilities submit their staff vaccination rates monthly; the DHHS dashboard was last updated July 15 with June’s numbers.

From highest to lowest staff vaccination rates, Franklin Memorial ranked 28 out of the 35 hospitals that reported to the state in July.

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