The number of COVID-19 patients at almost all of Maine’s hospitals fell or flattened for a second week, as social distancing measures slowed the spread of the coronavirus, data collected from the hospitals by the Press Herald show.

Maine Medical Center, which has had roughly half of the state’s confirmed coronavirus inpatients through most of the crisis, has had 14 to 16 such patients for the past four days — fewer than half the April 7 peak of 35 patients — and has had fewer than 30 since April 11. Mercy Hospital in Portland hasn’t had a COVID-19 in-patient since April 14. Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center had zero Thursday, for the first time since March 27.

“We’ve had preliminary success, and it’s very exciting to see the social distancing has worked so well, but it’s very preliminary,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, a former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention who is now the chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care network. “It’s like November in a lake in Maine and there’s a thin layer of ice and we’re like, ‘Good, it’s ice.’ But it’s not safe to go walking on it yet.”

Two other hospitals that have regularly treated pandemic patients throughout the crisis — Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick and York Hospital in York — also have seen declines from their peak counts, while the inpatient count at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford have plateaued.

The only hospital with a slight upward trend is MaineGeneral in Augusta, whose confirmed inpatient count has slowly increased from 1 to 6 since March 19.

Statewide, the total number of  confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations as reported by the Maine CDC has decreased, standing at 39 Friday, down from 87 on April 7, the earliest date for which the agency has such data. The Maine CDC reports only total statewide hospitalizations; it does not break the data out by hospital and didn’t start asking hospitals for their counts until March 31.

Hospitalizations can end three ways: recovery, death or transfer to another facility. The data collected by the Press Herald, which is current through Thursday, does not include outpatients or inpatients who were suspected of having the virus but never tested.

Governments worldwide have introduced social distancing measures to “flatten the curve” in an effort to slow the pandemic’s spread so that hospital intensive care units are not overwhelmed by a massive wave of patients. Mainers, who have been living under a stay-at-home order since March 31, have clearly succeeded in this short-term goal, and hospital leaders have moved from finding alternative ventilators to talking about how to resume non-pandemic surgeries and other medical care.

“I think it’s a very encouraging trend,” said Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer at Central Maine Healthcare, which operates CMMC. “There’s been a lot of focus in the last week or so on looking at the ways we might be able to provide some of the care that’s been postponed.”

By flattening the curve, Maine hospitals have so far avoided the potential crisis caused by the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment and ventilators. Maine received none of the 400 ventilators it had sought from the federal emergency stockpile and a tiny fraction of the PPE, which was distributed to states using criteria the Trump administration refuses to disclose.

Paradoxically, the encouraging news comes at the end of what has been Maine’s deadliest week for the coronavirus – 13 deaths – as outbreaks afflicted six long-term care facilities. Many patients at long-term care facilities have advanced directives saying they do not want to be hospitalized, so some of those who died did not show up in the inpatient data.

Two of the more serious outbreaks occurred at The Commons at Tall Pines in Belfast and the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Augusta. Those communities are home to two hospitals that have been exceptions to the downward trend in other parts of the state.

Waldo General Hospital in Belfast admitted its first COVID-19 patient Tuesday and had reported a total of two inpatients Wednesday and Thursday. MaineGeneral, which shared its full data set for the first time, has been at an all-time high of six inpatients for the three days ending Thursday.

Mills, who is Gov. Janet Mills’ sister, has noted that the long-term care facilities provide a cautionary tale of just how dangerous the novel coronavirus is. Many of the facilities have implemented stringent measures to isolate and protect residents, but once the virus enters such a facility – where social distancing is difficult – it spreads widely.

She also said she remains concerned about the very different trends in southern New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts, both short drives from southern Maine and interconnected socially and economically, from the movement of goods and services to the tourism trade. Greater Boston has emerged as one of the nation’s hot spots, with hospitals at capacity and patients beginning to fill a field hospital at the city’s sprawling convention center.

“This worries me, because these places are just a spitting distance from Maine and their hospitals are over capacity,” Mills said Friday. “I’ve been in touch with former colleagues who work in Boston area hospitals, and it’s an absolute war zone down there.”

The Maine CDC did not respond to a reporter’s request to discuss the hospitalization data.

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