Billie Jo Davis, right, and her son Waylon protest at Monument Park in Houlton against the vaccine mandate for Maine Healthcare Workers. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Aroostook County continues to climb to all-time highs, but many residents in The County remain wary of any proposed vaccination mandates.

In Houlton, a group of around 100 protesters gathered on Tuesday afternoon in Monument Park to protest against the Gov. Janet Mills’ mandate that all health care workers must be vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 1.

Speakers at the rally included Emily Nixon, a member of the anti-mandate group Mainers for Freedom, Maine Grassroots Republican Caucus Chairperson John Deveau of Caribou and State Rep. Tracy Quint.

Tuesday’s was one of many anti-mandate protests to have sprung up across the state over the last few weeks, with some health care workers vowing to resign if the mandate takes effect. But it comes at a time when cases in Aroostook are at some of the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, and Houlton Regional Hospital is reporting a record number of hospitalizations from COVID-19.

“We are in a war for our freedom,” Nixon told the crowd. “It is not about a vaccine. It is about the preservation of our God-given right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity.”

Doris Scott, a local resident who attended Tuesday’s rally, said that she was protesting what she saw as excessive government control.

“Once you start mandating one party, it’s going to spread to all people,” she said. “I don’t think the government should control what gets put into our bodies.”

Scott said she was by no means an “anti-vaxxer,” citing the polio and smallpox vaccines, which helped eliminate those diseases in the U.S. But she was hesitant about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, saying it is still too early to know the full effects, despite recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

“There’s a difference between a polio vaccine and this,” Scott said about the COVID-19 vaccines. “I think we need to let this go for a few years first, but even then I don’t think the government should be mandating it.”

Julie Chapla, a registered nurse, was at the rally to express her opposition to the mandate.

“If this goes through, all these people will lose their jobs,” Chapla said. “I don’t need a vaccine because I’ve had COVID. I have antibodies.”

But Aroostook is also struggling to contain the rise of COVID-19 cases throughout the county. While most counties saw a decline in the number of active cases on Tuesday, Aroostook added eight new cases, bringing the total number to 219, the fourth highest case count among Maine counties.

At Houlton Regional Hospital, a record number of patients are being hospitalized with the disease, according to hospital CEO Shawn Anderson.

“August has been a record month for activity,” Anderson said. “Houlton Regional Hospital has conducted 222 COVID tests in the past 7 days and has confirmed 15 new positive cases during that timeframe. Our Emergency Department has been very active with COVID testing and treatment. Likewise, we have seen the highest levels of COVID hospitalizations since the beginning of the pandemic.”

About 56 percent of Aroostook’s total population has been vaccinated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That ranks it somewhere in the middle of Maine counties in terms of vaccinated population, behind Maine’s coastal Cumberland and Knox counties, but ahead of other rural counties like Piscataquis and Somerset.