Last summer, we could only hope for a vaccine to become available that would help us return to our pre-pandemic lives. We remained cautious, masked up and continued with our toned-down summer plans the best we could. The rate of COVID-19 infections slowed dramatically, and it felt as though we were gaining on this disease.
Now, one year later, with three vaccines readily available, we find ourselves with surging infection rates once again – the likes of which we have not seen since the start of the pandemic. In fact, just a month ago, the seven-day positivity rate statewide was three times lower than it is right now.
We are going in the wrong direction.
While Maine’s vaccination rate, which currently stands at about 63 percent of those eligible, is higher than the national average of 50 percent and a whole lot higher than Alabama’s or Mississippi’s 34 percent, we still have a way to go in both uptake and acceptance.
It is probably safe to say that all those who want the vaccine have received it. Messaging, social pressure and moves like a vaccine lottery also swayed a good portion of those who were on the fence. But the last third of Mainers are the ones currently in focus because without them we are doomed to remain in a cycle of mandates and restrictions.
For those who are vaccinated, the coronavirus poses little risk. Even if a vaccinated person gets a “breakthrough” case, it is likely to be mild unless that person is elderly or has an underlying condition. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99 percent of COVID-19 deaths occur among the unvaccinated. However, new research shows that vaccinated people can spread the new Delta variant just as readily as the unvaccinated. This, my friends, is what they call a game changer. As the science surrounding this pandemic continues to evolve, we must pay attention.
Disease variants are produced as a virus replicates. Each time the virus is transmitted there is a potential for a new variant to emerge. The Delta variant has also been found to be more contagious, which has led the U.S. CDC to issue guidance that calls for individuals in areas of high or substantial transmission to resume mask wearing in indoor settings, regardless of vaccine status. Piggybacking on the recommendations, Gov. Mills announced last week that Maine would adopt that guidance, but not mandate it. Residents can check the CDC website for current information about which counties have elevated transmission and where masks should be worn.
On Friday, Hancock County was listed as having “substantial transmission,” but that was dropped on Saturday to “moderate.”
The rise in cases has caused many to voluntarily return to masking indoors. This is an unfortunate step backward, especially for those who have followed the rules throughout the pandemic and are among the nearly 70 percent of Mainers who have already stepped up to get a shot in their arm. The backlash toward the unvaccinated is also growing and is further dividing a population in agreement they want this pandemic to end.
The vaccines are still the best way out of the pandemic. Until we can achieve a wider level of acceptance, we must keep everything on the table – including mandates and restrictions.