A sign outside the Dover-Foxcroft police department urges social distancing on July 28, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — School outbreaks over the last month have been heavily concentrated in Maine counties with lower vaccination rates and more COVID-19 transmission, highlighting the challenge that community spread poses to children’s learning.

The trend fits with predictions from epidemiologists who warned that rising case levels would challenge schools as they looked to bring back students for a fully in-person schedule. It highlights that the COVID-19 situation in communities cannot be delinked from virus outcomes in schools, which affect many students who are too young to get vaccines.

A Bangor Daily News analysis of state data is the first to show how that has played out across Maine, with lower county vaccination rates and higher overall infection rates linked to more COVID-19 outbreaks in schools by statistically significant margins. About 4 out of every 10 schools in Somerset County, the least-vaccinated in Maine, have seen outbreaks in the past month. In highly vaccinated Cumberland County, only 7 percent of schools have had one.

“It’s just a question of increased community transmission as a result of unvaccinated people, and community transmission affects everybody in the community,” said Peter Millard, a Waldo County physician and epidemiologist who used to work for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Friday, more than 500 Maine schools had seen COVID-19 cases in the previous 30 days, according to data from the Maine Department of Education, while 113 have recorded outbreaks, defined as three or more connected cases among students or staff.

Somerset and Piscataquis counties saw the greatest shares of their schools record a COVID-19 outbreak in that same time frame, according to state data, at about 41 percent and and 38 percent respectively, according to a BDN analysis of data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Department of Education.

Those two counties have the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Maine. On the flip side, as of Friday, Cumberland County — where 76 percent of residents are fully vaccinated — has seen relatively few outbreaks over the previous month. There have been none in Sagadahoc County, which has Maine’s fourth-highest vaccination rate at 67 percent and the lowest infection rate over the past month.

Although Maine saw record cases among kids in September, severe COVID-19 infections in children remain rare. Since the start of the pandemic, about 1 in 450 Mainers younger than 20 who have tested positive for the virus ended up in the hospital, according to Maine CDC data. But infections and outbreaks in schools still disrupt learning, with some schools forced to temporarily switch to remote learning to prevent further spread of the virus.

The spread of the virus in schools may not have been a problem if not for the arrival of the more contagious delta variant, Millard said. He noted that while prevention measures such as mask-wearing and improved ventilation may not be enough to fully stop delta variant outbreaks, they remain key tools in mitigating its spread.

Millard was optimistic, however, that the approval of the Pfizer shot for children between the ages of 5 and 11, which could come in early November, would reduce infections and help slow transmission.

“Vaccines are coming pretty soon,” he said. “That’ll be a big help.”