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With a new COVID variant emerging and with Maine hitting new records last week for the number of people hospitalized with COVID, it feels reasonable to ask if there was another, better way to tackle the illness that has killed more than 775,000 Americans, more than 1,300 of them in Maine.
In fact, Puerto Rico, an American territory in the Caribbean, offers a look at a different path.
Despite a fragile health care system and a strong distrust of the federal government, which was reinforced by the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico now has one of the highest vaccination rates of any U.S. state or territory.
“It hasn’t been politicized here,” Governor Pedro Pierluisi told TIME in a recent interview. “This is not about reds and blues in Puerto Rico. It’s simply about people realizing that this is a health threat and then listening to their medical providers and public officials.”
Puerto Rico’s main political parties and their leaders have been broadly supportive of vaccines, as have leaders across the island’s industries, Pierluisi said.
Monica Feliu Mojer, spokesperson for the nonprofit Ciencia Puerto Rico, an organization that advocates for science, credited “a combination of science and solidarity” for the island’s success at handling COVID-19. She told Agence France-Presse that residents’ response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the lack of electricity and health concerns that followed, prepared them to respond to the pandemic.
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Puerto Rico, nearly 74 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, higher than any U.S. state. The territories of Guam and Republic of Palau also have higher vaccination rates than the 50 United States.
The rates of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Puerto are all lower than in Maine, based on a 7-day average. More than 3,200 people have died of COVID in Puerto Rico, which struggled with a shortage of testing and contact tracing in the early days of the pandemic.
Time reported that when Pierluisi assumed office in January, he kept a curfew in place across the territory that was only recently lifted after a consistent drop in hospitalizations and deaths. He maintained a strict indoor mask mandate, which is enforced. And in July, he instituted vaccine mandates for teachers and students in both public and private schools.
“It’s a stunning achievement in a health care system that has for years been considered among the nation’s weakest,” Time reported. Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories get the lowest amount of total federal dollars spent on health programs like Medicaid and Medicare per capita than any U.S. state, according to Census Bureau data.
In Maine, last week, a record 314 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, the day before the Thanksgiving holiday. It was the first time since the pandemic began that more than 300 Maine people were hospitalized for the illness, Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control, tweeted on Wednesday.
These dire numbers are despite the fact that there had been a 30 percent increase in COVID vaccinations in Maine over the prior two weeks, Shah said on Tuesday. Up to 70 percent of those who are hospitalized are unvaccinated, he said.
Immunization rates in Maine vary from a high of more than 81 percent of eligible residents being fully vaccinated in Cumberland County to less than 59 percent in Somerset County.
Maine isn’t going to turn into Puerto Rico. But the island’s acceptance of vaccination and other measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID show what was possible when the focus remained on protecting public health rather than furthering divisive politics.