State health officials reported another high daily COVID-19 case count Thursday even as hospitalizations continue to fall steadily from their pandemic peak late last month.
The number of outbreaks and cases in Maine schools also increased from last week, according to an update Thursday from the state’s Department of Education. But the increases were were far smaller than those reported in the previous two weeks, another indication the surge may be easing.
With 680 new cases reported, the seven-day daily case average now stands at 556, which is up from 466 cases two weeks ago and from 316 cases this time last month, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the new cases Thursday, half were among individuals under 40.
Since the pandemic reached Maine in March 2020, there have been 93,881 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, 2,569 people have been hospitalized at some point and 1,066 people have died. In the past three days, the CDC reported a total of 40 deaths, although 30 of those were found through a periodic review of death certificates and occurred between Sept. 11-29.
Nationally, more than 700,000 Americans have now died from the virus, according to the U.S. CDC.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine continues to drop precipitously. As of Thursday, there were 152 individuals in the hospital, including 46 in critical care and 23 on ventilators. Over the last two weeks, hospitalizations have decreased by 45 percent and the number of critical care patients has dropped by 80 percent.
Across the U.S., COVID-19 hospitalizations have decreased from 81,725 on average two weeks ago to 63,921 now, or 28 percent, according to the U.S. CDC.
The decline in Maine has been felt unevenly among the state’s major hospitals.
The number of inpatients with the virus at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Augusta’s Maine General fell sharply this week after a month marked by record-breaking levels.
EMMC’s confirmed COVID inpatient count fell from 33 to 22 over the week ending Thursday after having hit 59 on Sept. 18, the highest number ever seen at any Maine hospital during the pandemic. MaineGeneral’s tally fell even more sharply from 20 to just eight over the course of the week after experiencing the worst burden of the pandemic only last week.
Southern Maine’s largest hospitals saw more gradual declines. Maine Medical Center in Portland had 32.7 COVID inpatients per day for the week, down from 32.9 the week before. At Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford, the figures were 14.4 and 10.1.
Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center continued to see growth, however. The data reported by the hospital was incomplete, but it appeared to have experienced a roughly 50 percent increase in patients for the week and hit 20 confirmed COVID-19 inpatients on Sunday, its highest level since May.
Also Thursday, the Maine Department of Education released updated data on positive cases and outbreaks in public schools. There have now been 2,910 cases among staff and students since the school year began, an increase of 332 cases over last week. Five additional schools also reached outbreak status, bringing that total to 113.
“Maine continues to experience community transmission, so we should expect to see some transmission occur in schools,” CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email Thursday. “However, tools such as vaccinations for those who are eligible, masking, pooled testing and contact tracing are available to schools to limit avenues for potential transmission.”
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been declining across the country in recent weeks, especially in areas where the delta variant took hold earlier. But some states, including Maine, are still seeing cases rise.
In recent weeks, Maine’s daily case reports have been affected by a backlog of positive tests after a surge of cases overwhelmed the agency’s ability to screen the cases each day to eliminate duplicates and follow-ups. But Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday that fewer than 100 outstanding cases were pending. The backlog had been as big as 2,500 tests.
According to the U.S. CDC, Maine’s seven-day case rate per 100,000 people is 267, which ranks 17th highest among states over that time and is higher than the national rate of 204 cases per 100,000 people. Another New England state, Connecticut, has the second-lowest rate of transmission over the last seven days, with just 80 cases per 100,000 people.
Maine and Connecticut have virtually identical rates of vaccination, but Connecticut’s rate is more uniform across the state. In Maine, there are wide disparities between southern, coastal counties and more rural, inland counties. Shah said Wednesday that large pockets of unvaccinated people in some of these counties are where the virus is spreading most and also where people are getting sick enough to be hospitalized.
There is plenty of evidence now to support the belief that transmission is happening more in lower vaccinated areas.
According to the most recent data published by the Maine CDC, Cumberland County has seen the lowest rate of virus transmission over the last 14 days – 34 cases per 10,000 people – and has by far the highest vaccination rate, 75.9 percent.
Conversely, the two counties with the highest rates of transmission over the last 14 days – Piscataquis (115 cases per 10,000 people) and Somerset (101 per 10,000) – also have the lowest vaccination rates, 55.3 percent and 53.7 percent, respectively.
Overall, Maine has administered 882,120 second doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That represents 65.6 percent of all residents and 74.5 precent of those 12 and older who are eligible.
Pfizer officially requested Thursday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorize its vaccine for children between 5-11. If approved, the U.S. CDC will then decide whether to recommend the shots for youngsters. Per Pfizer’s application, younger children will get one-third of the dose that has been given to adults.
In addition, the state has given 38,443 third doses of Pfizer vaccine so far to older Mainers and those who are immunocompromised. The U.S. CDC has recommended additional doses for those groups.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this report.