Neil Higgins, 47, from Charleston, speaks about his decision to not get vaccinated in August. Higgins said he has had little concern about COVID-19 since the pandemic started and is not worried of getting sick. About 61 percent of residents of the town are unvaccinated. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Half of Maine’s 10 least vaccinated communities are in Penobscot County, according to Maine Center for Disease Control data.

One year after the COVID-19 vaccine became available to Mainers, the numbers show the extent to which many will go to avoid getting vaccinated, especially in rural areas, even as vaccine mandates become more commonplace and the medical consensus on the shots’ effectiveness only strengthens.

The availability of the vaccine changed the nature of the pandemic, providing a better defense against the virus than any other tool. Yet distrust of government and authority and a belief in misinformation have discouraged numerous people, particularly in rural areas of Maine, from getting vaccinated, according to experts and previous Bangor Daily News interviews with those who have resisted vaccination.

The town of Passadumkeag, about 30 miles north of Bangor, has Maine’s lowest rate of vaccinated residents, according to Maine CDC data on vaccinations in every zip code.

Nearly two-thirds of the town’s residents, 64 percent, have not received a single dose. Some 61 percent of residents in Charleston, a conservative community where several residents who spoke to the BDN in August cited misinformation in voicing their opposition to the shots, are also unvaccinated.

Zip codes that primarily contain the towns of Stacyville and Stetson — where 56 percent of residents are unvaccinated — and Mattawamkeag (54 percent unvaccinated) are also among the least vaccinated zip codes in the state.

Four of the five Penobscot County communities are located north of Bangor. Stetson is about a half hour west.

The significant number of Mainers who refuse a vaccine that has proven very effective continues to be surprising, said Dr. Peter Millard, a former CDC epidemiology staffer and adjunct professor with the University of New England.

“It’s shocking. There’s just tremendous skepticism about authority,” Millard said. “You see it more in rural Maine than anywhere else.”  

People choose to not get vaccinated for a variety of reasons, from religious to political to medical. There is no evidence that the shots affect fertility or lead to long-term health trouble for recipients, though many cite those concerns in declining to get vaccinated.

Some 68 percent of Penobscot County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared with 74 percent statewide, though those numbers obscure the higher rates of unvaccinated residents in more rural communities.

Still, the more densely populated Bangor area isn’t immune from vaccine resistance.

Around 13,000 unvaccinated people live in the area covered by the 04401 zip code, which includes Bangor, Hermon, Veazie and Glenburn. That’s the highest number of unvaccinated people for any zip code in Maine, even though the percent of vaccinated residents living in those communities is close to the statewide rate.

It shows that there remains a large concentration of unvaccinated people in the Bangor area, allowing the virus to spread.

“I think it’s really gratifying how effective the vaccine has turned out to be,” Millard said. “But 30 percent is a lot of people to not be vaccinated.”

While the record-breaking rise in cases and hospitalizations lately have been horrifying, Millard said he was still optimistic about some aspects of the fight against the virus. For example, Pfizer’s antiviral pill to fight the coronavirus could very well be a game changer, he said, especially amid the onset of the omicron variant.

And the initial series of vaccines and boosters clearly worked in preventing COVID-19, Millard said, a fact reflected in hospitalization numbers. In hospital beds across the Northern Light hospital system on Wednesday, 76 percent of all coronavirus patients and 82 percent of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU had not received a single dose of the vaccine.