As the state reaches a milestone with 1 million Mainers having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, significant divisions remain between the state’s southern coast and its rural interior.
In Cumberland County, almost 90 percent of eligible people had received at least one shot as of Tuesday, by far the highest rate of Maine’s 16 counties. Somerset County, in contrast, has the lowest rate: Only 64 percent of eligible residents have received at least one dose, far lower than the statewide and U.S. rates.
While residents have long spoken of “two Maines” and the divides that have long existed in a state with nearly 500 municipalities, those divides have seemingly never been more present as Maine tries to address the state’s worst health crisis in a century.
Residents of Somerset County were practically unanimous in saying that an opposition to being told what to do, especially by the government, played a significant factor in a desire not to get vaccinated.
“People are strong-headed,” said Glenn Murray, 60 of Norridgewock, who is vaccinated.
But 90 miles south, vaccine hesitancy was virtually non-existent. Jill Carlton, 27, of Portland, who was walking her roommate’s dog on Congress Street, said that she didn’t know anyone who wasn’t vaccinated. Although some had taken longer to get the shot than others, she said.
Carlton said she got vaccinated “for both myself and others, to stop the spread.”
Lisa Caswell, the pharmacy director at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, was not surprised that Somerset ranked last in vaccinations.
While Caswell said many had clamored to get vaccinated early in the spring, that rate had since slowed precipitously. Many cited misinformation about potential side effects. She also said it was clear that the political nature of vaccines had driven some away from the shot.
The Skowhegan hospital had done a lot of public messaging around the vaccine and had even traveled to around 100 homes to vaccinate people, along with staging several pop-up clinics, Caswell said.
Yet, 16,214 eligible residents in the county have not received a single shot. Many of the unvaccinated people are young, she said. In Somerset County, those ages 12-49 have a vaccination rate of just 50 percent, making up a majority of the county’s unvaccinated population. In Cumberland County, that rate is 83 percent.
Many of those people get physicals or other types of medical care at the hospital, Caswell said. Vaccination during those appointments at a physician’s insistence was clearly the best way to reach a higher vaccination rate in the county, she said.
“The people who can be convinced by broad-spread public messages have already been convinced,” Caswell said. “I think it’s really the one-on-one conversations that are going to make the difference now.”
A Bangor Daily News analysis of Penobscot County in June found that a town’s level of support for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election was the strongest predictor of a low vaccination rate. That correlation also holds when looking at county-wide vaccination rates and Trump support. About 60 percent in Somerset County voted for Trump, the second highest rate in Maine after Piscataquis, while about 30 percent did in Cumberland.
Randy Libby, 32, who has a “Trump 2024” decal on the front of his car, noted that Trump had gotten vaccinated and had encouraged others to get the shot.
But Libby, who was interviewed outside his workplace in Skowhegan, has not gotten vaccinated. He doesn’t feel enough testing has been done on the available vaccines. He noted that he had gone the duration of the pandemic without getting the virus.
“I usually keep my distance, wash my hands,” Libby said. “Not much else has changed: just living life.”
Calling the vaccine disparities in Maine “terrible,” Joe Watson, 77, of Portland said that political differences seemed to be the most important factor in the individual decisions of the unvaccinated.
Trump had not done nearly enough to encourage his followers to get vaccinated, he said. The former president chose to receive the vaccine privately as president, making him the only living or former president to not get the shot on camera.
“I think that has resonated with people,” Watson said, “even though he himself got vaccinated,”
Greg Dore, 66, of Skowhegan said that the mentality in southern Maine was fundamentally different than in the rest of the state.
“People south of Augusta have a different attitude than people north of it,” Dore said.
Dore, who recently retired from his longtime role as Skowhegan’s road commissioner, is vaccinated, but said none of his five sons want to get the shot. He thinks vaccine hesitancy really comes down to education.
David Ellis, 62, who lives in Augusta but operates a pottery business in the Somerset County town of Mercer, said he felt that the differing vaccination rates reflected existing divisions in the state, not a new one.
“I think it’s a divide by choice,” said Ellis, who said it was an obvious decision for him to get vaccinated. “People are making a decision. They’re going to draw a line in the sand, and this is where it is.”
Some Mainers, including Larry McHugh, 66, of Anson and Joe Bennett, 49, of Saco, said that it simply made more sense to get vaccinated in Cumberland vs. Somerset County, noting that it was more densely populated and saw far more out-of-staters who could bring the virus.
Population density is one of many significant divides between the two counties. Cumberland is 28 times more densely populated than Somerset, has a median household income $32,000 higher and a poverty rate almost three times lower.
Yet the strongest divide between the two counties may be in college education. More than half of people 25 and older in Cumberland have a college degree, while only 17 percent do in Somerset. Much data have shown that people with college degrees are much more likely to get vaccinated.
Alexis Toth, 27, of Madison, who was shopping at Skowhegan’s Walmart on Tuesday, didn’t want to get vaccinated but did so she could continue working at her job in the medical field. It upset her to have to get a vaccine she didn’t want.
Toth herself wishes it was an individual decision and not one involving mandates like those from Gov. Janet Mills or President Joe Biden, she said.
“If I didn’t get the shot, I was going to lose my job,” Toth said.
A 24-year-old Smithfield woman who also worked in the medical field had similar feelings. She didn’t want to get the shot because she was pregnant. Fears about fertility are the most common reason for vaccine hesitancy seen by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, director Nirav Shah said last week.
But the woman, who said opposition to vaccines in Somerset County likely stemmed from lack of education and opposition to being told what to do, said she realized after speaking to medical professionals that there was no evidence the vaccine could hurt her or her baby.
“Getting COVID can be more detrimental to me and my baby than getting the vaccine,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to prevent backlash. “There are unknown risks, but, from what I’ve read and studied, it’s fairly safe.”