Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health's COVID-19 response, listens to speakers at a Bangor School Committee meeting on a mask requirement for schools in August. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Maine’s rural counties are bearing the brunt of record coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the state, data shows.

Maine announced a record 2,148 new coronavirus cases on Friday, by far the most ever reported in a single day during the pandemic. Though the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the vast majority of the new cases weren’t from tests conducted the previous day, the announcement showcases a significant spike in cases amid more indoor gatherings and following Thanksgiving, pushing hospitals to the brink.

Though there are more overall cases in the more populated counties in Maine’s south, the state’s eight most rural counties since Tuesday have had an infection rate that’s 43 percent higher, according to Maine CDC data. Aroostook County has seen the highest case rate of all in that time, with a case rate more than three times that of Cumberland County.

Penobscot County saw 364 cases reported on Friday, by far the most of any county in Maine. Though at least some of those were backlogged and not from Thursday, it has seen a higher rate of cases this week than the far more populous Cumberland and York counties.

The surge in cases in Penobscot County really comes down to the fact that not enough people have received their initial vaccine doses, and many others have yet to receive a booster shot, said Dr. James Jarvis, senior physician executive of Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response. This has allowed the highly transmissible delta variant to spread rapidly, he said.

About 29 percent of eligible Penobscot County residents have still not received a single dose of the vaccine, or about 42,000 people in total. An additional 61,000 fully vaccinated residents have not yet received a third dose, though not all are eligible. Jarvis said waning immunity from those who were vaccinated more than six months ago is likely part of why the new case count is so high.

Maine’s other rural communities have seen vaccination and booster rates that are low compared with the more urban parts of the state.

Several cases likely came from Thanksgiving gatherings, he said. And many in Penobscot County have simply let their guard down and been less mindful of restricting their behavior to stop the spread of the virus, Jarvis said.

“You continue to see people in public places, particularly indoors, who are not wearing masks,” he said. “That sets us up for more community spread of not just COVID-19, but all respiratory illnesses.”

The high case count is why Northern Light announced Friday it will host a series of vaccine clinics at its health center on Union Street in Bangor beginning next week, with registration beginning today. The clinics will offer both the initial series of vaccine shots and boosters.

The system is also planning a similar effort in the Portland area, Jarvis said.

Northern Light scheduled those clinics to provide greater access to the shots as many Mainers have encountered trouble getting their boosters at retail pharmacies that have struggled with staff shortages.

The high volume of new cases risks overwhelming Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, which is already buckling under the current surge with few beds to spare. On Friday, the hospital began evaluating non-emergency medical procedures with an eye toward postponing some to free up space.

The situation is stressing hospitals across Northern Light’s network, which are located in some of the rural communities with the state’s highest infection rates. A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, for example, is rescheduling non-emergency surgeries and converting its day surgery unit to an inpatient unit to provide more space. Two local colleges have loaned the hospital beds from their nursing programs so it can accommodate a patient surge.

Many patients who would usually be transferred to EMMC in Bangor for a higher level of care can’t because there are no beds left, Jarvis said.

Despite the new numbers bringing a harsh new light on an already dire situation, Jarvis said he was hopeful the state could pull through the worst of the pandemic with sacrifices from both frontline workers and the public.  

“I’m always optimistic when it comes to Mainers,” Jarvis said. “As a collective group, we help each other out.”