COVID-19 case rates are rising steadily in Maine’s least vaccinated counties while many unknowns remain about the new variant of the virus as the pandemic enters its second winter in the state.

From Nov. 1 to 23, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 14,558 new cases of COVID-19 in the state and 95 additional deaths, bringing the cumulative toll of the pandemic in Maine to 118,748 cases and 1,307 deaths.

Case data was not updated Friday through Monday due to the Thanksgiving holiday. The next update will be Tuesday.

In the past couple of weeks, the positivity rate for residents of Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties has surged to among the highest in the state.

Androscoggin and Oxford have been at the top of the list for some time, but Somerset and Franklin counties’ jump to the third and fourth highest spots, respectively, is a reflection that clusters of unvaccinated people in rural parts of the state are driving new cases.

Speaking during a media briefing earlier this month, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah pointed to these “pockets” of unvaccinated people to explain why cases are rising despite Maine’s high vaccination rate.

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“Those unvaccinated pockets compromise tens of thousands of individuals in those counties who are at risk,” Shah said at a Nov. 10 briefing. “And when you add on top of that the delta variant with its significantly higher transmission rate, what you see is what we see right now: you see COVID thriving in areas of the state with low vaccinations.”

Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties rank 12th, 13th and 15th, respectively, out of Maine’s 16 counties in terms of the vaccination rate for final doses among all people. Somerset County is the least vaccinated in the state for final doses.

Statewide, 67.9% of Mainers have received their final doses and 71.3% of eligible individuals, or those over the age of 5, are fully vaccinated.

“From the virus’s perspective, areas of the country like that are a literal buffet,” Shah said.

And on top of that, hospitalizations continue to break records.

On Monday, 322 people were hospitalized, including 99 people in critical care and 43 on ventilators. There were 62 critical care beds available: 47 for adults and 15 for children.

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On Thanksgiving Day, providers at Maine hospitals cared for the highest number of COVID patients in a single day since the pandemic began, with 327 people hospitalized.

On the same day, scientists in South Africa identified the latest mutation of the COVID-19 virus, the omicron variant, which the World Health Organization has named a “variant of concern.”

So far omicron has been detected in 16 countries, including Canada, and in Hong Kong, according to the New York Times. No cases have been detected yet in the U.S.

Research into the variant is still early and it is unclear if it is more transmissible, more deadly or how effective the current vaccines are in fighting against it compared to other strains of the virus.

Gov. Janet Mills said Monday that she has asked the Maine CDC and Department of Health and Human Services to “closely track” the new variant, “particularly its severity, transmissibility and its potential impact on Maine people and our health care systems.”

“The emergency of omicron once again underscores the importance of taking common-sense steps like wearing masks when inside at public places and, most importantly, getting vaccinated, including now getting your booster if you can,” Mills said.

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