These 2 Highly Vaccinated States Are Seeing Their Worst COVID Surges Yet

Local experts say there are a few explanations for the recent spikes.

Even though there isn't a corner of the U.S. that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't affected, spikes in cases have hit different areas at different times. Fortunately, vaccines have helped keep national numbers far below the worst heights seen last winter, even as last summer's Delta variant-fueled surge showed that the virus was still spreading rapidly through places where fewer shots had been administered. But as autumn carries on, other states are now beginning to see some of their worst COVID surges to date, despite having high rates of vaccinated residents—especially Vermont and Maine.

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Although 77.9 percent of its total population has received at least one dose of vaccine, Maine ranks 18th in average weekly case counts per capita in the U.S. with 38.1 cases per 100,000 residents, as of Nov. 10, according to data from COVID Act Now. Vermont is currently ranked ninth highest, with a weekly average of 50.4 cases per capita and 80.7 percent of its total population having at least one dose of vaccine. In comparison, the national weekly average was 23 cases per 100,000 people, with 68 percent of the population having received their first dose, as of Nov. 10, according to data from The New York Times.

As numbers in both states reach their highest levels of the entire pandemic, health officials have expressed concern and some confusion given the high local vaccination rates. "There is not one simple answer," Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, said during a news conference on Nov. 9. "But, there are clearly factors that have come together to create the situation that we're in now."

According to Levine, Vermont's enviable status as one of the states with the infection rates—ranking second behind only Hawaii in all-time COVID-19 cases per capita—has ironically made it fertile territory for the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently responsible for 99 percent of cases nationwide. The low level of immunity in the local population has made it easier for the virus to spread quickly and more widely than in other areas, The Burlington Free Press reports.

"An infected person can spread the virus to five people or more, far faster than the original strain," Levine said during the press conference. "This means it can spread faster than we can trace and alert contacts."

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Still, Levine pointed out that the unvaccinated account for the majority of new infections and hospitalizations in Vermont, as well as people in their 20s and young children who only recently became eligible to receive their shots. Levine also pointed out that the state's heavy influx of tourists who are less likely to follow local health guidelines has also factored in.

And as a state with a higher population of seniors than most others, the state's early success in administering vaccines now puts it in a position where boosters are needed to help shore up waning efficacy. "As one of the oldest states, the percentage of Vermonters in this situation is higher than most other parts of the country," Levine said. "I know for many of us it can be frustrating to see Vermont looking so different from how we once did during the pandemic, but even after all this time, the virus is not something we have absolute control over."

Maine finds itself in a similar situation. Ranking just behind Vermont as the state with the third-lowest number of per capita infections, officials say that rural counties with lower vaccination rates currently face a highly transmissible variant and little in the way of previously built-up immunity. "What you get, in effect, is gasoline on fire," Nirav Shah, MD, director of the Maine CDC, said in a press briefing on Nov. 10.

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State data finds that unvaccinated patients have made up 86 percent of all cases and around two-thirds of COVID-related hospitalizations since vaccines became widely available in spring, the Portland Press Herald reports. Some warned that the return of cold weather meant a return to indoor activities that could see cases spike even further—especially as safety precautions such as masks and social distancing disappear.

"Between 50 to 70 percent of our inpatients are unvaccinated against COVID-19," John Alexander, MD, chief medical officer for Central Maine Healthcare, told the Herald. "While our area has a large proportion of unvaccinated residents, many daily activities like shopping and attending school are returning to near normal. It is the very reason why we continue to ask our communities to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and if you have already been vaccinated, to get the booster once you are eligible."

Ultimately, Shah says he believes that the children who recently became eligible to receive their shots could help bring in a wave of adult recipients as well. "We are going into pediatric vaccination with the wind at our backs," he said. "If you're not yet vaccinated, now is a great time to get vaccinated, perhaps alongside your kids."

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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