Community transmission of COVID-19 reached substantial levels in Franklin County on Wednesday, joining Androscoggin, Oxford and 10 other counties in the state in that category.

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention recommends that all people, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask in indoor, public settings in areas of high or substantial levels of community transmission.

State health officials Wednesday reported 18 new cases of COVID-19 in Androscoggin County, four in Franklin County and nine in Oxford County. In total, 217 new cases were reported across the state.

There were no additional deaths.

As of Wednesday, Kennebec and Sagadahoc counties were the only counties in the state where community transmission was considered in the moderate range, based on case data from the Maine CDC.

Waldo County, which has emerged as a hotspot in the state in recent weeks, had a high level of transmission. The rest of the state was in the substantial range.

Case rates statewide and in the tri-county area of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties have maintained their upward trajectory for about a month now, and immediately following record lows not seen since last fall.

Androscoggin County reported an average of 10 new cases Wednesday and on each of the six days prior. Four weeks ago, on July 14, the seven-day rolling average stood at 3.1.

Franklin and Oxford’s seven-day rolling averages Wednesday were 0.72 and 0.92, respectively. Four weeks ago, the averages stood at 0.3 and 1.3, respectively.

Statewide, there has been an average of 148.4 new cases over the past seven days. A month ago, it stood at 24.

Adjusted for population, the seven-day average of new daily cases per 10,000 individuals in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties Wednesday was 0.93, 0.72 and 0.92, respectively. The statewide average was 1.1 new daily cases per 10,000 individuals.

Public health experts, including Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, have said that the spread of the delta variant largely among unvaccinated people is the most likely culprit behind this recent surge in cases.

Research from the U.S. CDC released last month said the delta variant is roughly twice as contagious as previous strains and contains a higher viral load than previous strains. The variant may also cause a more severe illness that requires hospitalization, specifically among unvaccinated individuals. Data suggests that vaccinated individuals contracting the delta variant may be infectious for a shorter length of time.

On Wednesday, there were 60 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide, including 28 in critical care and 13 on a ventilator.

Since the vaccine became widely available in the spring, most individuals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 hospitalized at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston were not vaccinated, Central Maine Healthcare’s chief medical officer, Dr. John Alexander, said in an interview Tuesday.

Central Maine Healthcare is the parent organization of CMMC, as well as Bridgton and Rumford hospitals.

“When we look at over the course of the last month, or even the last couple of months, we certainly have seen that patients are more likely to not have the vaccine if they’re hospitalized,” Alexander said. “They are certainly younger than we have seen previously.

“And I think, again, that goes to the fact (that) our population over the age of 60 are very highly vaccinated,” he added.

The vaccination rate among Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties’ residents 60 years and older is 80-81% for final inoculations. Statewide, 87% of Mainers ages 60 and up are fully vaccinated.

Uptake among tri-county residents between the ages of 20 and 59 is much lower, however. In Androscoggin County, 56% of residents in that age group have gotten their final shots. In Franklin and Oxford counties, those numbers fall to 49% and 48%, respectively.

While Mainers under the age of 60 account for 80% of all COVID cases, they only represent about 8% of all COVID-related deaths, according to Maine CDC data published Wednesday, meaning that Mainers 60 and older represent about a fifth of all cases but the overwhelming majority of deaths.

The delta variant, while it may be responsible for the increase in COVID-19 patients at the hospital, has not affected CMMC’s safety protocols or clinical practices, Alexander said.

“The same public health measures that have worked all through this entire pandemic continue to work today, with the added benefit that we have the vaccine,” he said. “And so, that’s why we’re strongly encouraging vaccination, really, for the public and for our own team members.”

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