The latest variant of the COVID-19 virus, omicron, is certainly a concern as people wait to learn more about it but they must not forget about the one right in front of us, Maine’s top public health official said Wednesday.

“The delta variant, which is here today, is already causing record cases, record positivity rates and record hospitalizations,” Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said.

“Omicron is a spark on the horizon,” he said. “Delta is the fire that’s blazing here today.”

There were 334 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, yet another single-day record. The number of people on ventilators — 49 — was another new high. Wednesday’s records broke ones set the day prior.

In a state such as Maine, with one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, the question is once again how and why cases and hospitalizations are surging.

“No. 1, at baseline, it’s just vaccination rates,” Shah said. Unvaccinated people continue to make up around 60% of all people hospitalized with COVID.

Of those in intensive care units or on ventilators, that percentage jumps to about 90%.

At certain points over the past few weeks, every COVID inpatient in the state’s two largest ICUs — Maine Medical Center in Portland and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor — were unvaccinated, Shah said.

And second, “it’s not just the aggregate percentage of folks who are vaccinated, it’s where they are in relation to others,” he said.

Maine’s high vaccination rates are not evenly distributed across its 16 counties, leaving “pockets” of low vaccination rates that are like “fire kindling as far as the virus is concerned,” he said.

“It’s like fire on the prairie when it arrives in places where there has been no one who has been vaccinated, or anyone who has had prior existing illness,” Shah said. “And in that setting the virus just runs free.”

Where hospitalized individuals are from is a reflection of this: Shah said the “bulk” of individuals hospitalized over the past couple of weeks are from rural counties.

To assess the risk in Maine’s communities, Shah pointed to data from the Maine CDC on case and vaccination rates by ZIP code.

According to Monday’s update to the vaccination rates dashboard, 12 ZIP codes in the tri-county region of Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford were flagged for having either a low vaccination rate or a high number of unvaccinated residents.

As of Nov. 29, Livermore Falls in Androscoggin County; New Vineyard and Phillips in Franklin County; and Hiram, Sumner, West Paris, Hebron and Porter in Oxford County were flagged as having a vaccination rate of less than 75% and less than 1,000 residents remaining unvaccinated.

Auburn, Lewiston and Sabattus in Androscoggin County; and Farmington in Franklin County were flagged as having a vaccination rate of at least 75% with 1,000 or more residents remaining unvaccinated.

And according to the cases by ZIP code dashboard, four out of the five ZIP codes in Maine with the highest per capita rate of new cases recorded between Oct. 31 and Nov. 28 were located in Androscoggin, Franklin or Oxford counties.

Of all new cases recorded during that time, the five towns with the highest positivity rate per 10,000 residents were, respectively: Jay in Franklin County, Mexico in Oxford County, Livermore Falls in Androscoggin County, Norway in Oxford County and Fort Fairfield in Aroostook County.

Residents of Jay and Mexico are between 83% and 84% vaccinated and in each, had an estimated 720 and 460, respectively, unvaccinated residents.

Livermore Falls has a vaccination rate of 70% and nearly 1,000 people unvaccinated.

Norway, on the other hand, has a 99% vaccination rate.

In the meantime, Shah said Mainers already have key tools on hand to fight the virus: to get vaccinated, to get the booster shot and to wear masks, especially in public settings.

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