Westbrook firefighter Reed Gilbert gathers information from Jacob Koris of Leeds at the testing site at the Westbrook Public Safety building on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 142 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday as well as two additional deaths.

To date, 158 deaths in Maine have been linked to the coronavirus, with the two most recent identified as a man in his 80s from Knox County and a woman in her 70s from Waldo County. While Maine’s death rate from COVID-19 remains among the lowest in the country, the number of fatalities tied to the virus is increasing – including four additional deaths reported Tuesday – as the virus surges across the state.

Hospitalizations are also approaching their highest levels during the now eight-month pandemic as Maine experiences the highest virus reproduction rate in the country.

Maine CDC reported 59 hospitalizations Wednesday – shy of the peak of 60 individuals hospitalized on May 26 – with 16 people in critical care units and six connected to ventilators. The state had 100 available critical care beds as of Tuesday along with 246 available ventilators. But hospitalizations are likely to continue rising because of a lag between new infections and severe onset of symptoms in individuals who prove particularly vulnerable to the virus.

COVID-19 cases are surging across the country, with infections in the U.S. topping 10 million and causing nearly 240,000 deaths, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. On Wednesday, more than 144,000 new cases were reported across the country, a 9.3 percent increase over the seven-day average, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Maine continues to have among the lowest per capita infection and death rates from COVID-19 in the nation. Yet public health officials as well as Gov. Janet Mills have warned that past successes could be overshadowed by this long-anticipated surge in the fall and winter.

The Maine CDC has tracked 8,202 total cases since the virus was first detected in Maine in mid-March. Of that total, 7,300 are confirmed while 902 were listed as “probable” Wednesday. The 142 new cases reported Wednesday is down from 204 Monday and 172 Tuesday.

Maine’s rolling seven-day average of new cases fell slightly to 163.7 Wednesday, down from 165. But that is six times higher than the 27.1 rolling seven-day average reported four weeks ago and nearly three times higher than the rate from two weeks ago, reflecting rapid spread of the virus in the state.

Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah did not hold a briefing Wednesday because of the Veterans’ Day holiday. But Shah noted on Twitter that the state’s seven-day positivity rate among individuals tested for COVID-19 stood at 2.46 percent, which is three times higher than the positivity rate from two weeks ago. Maine’s positivity remains below the national, seven-day average of 8.5 percent, however.

On Tuesday, the Maine CDC said five counties in Maine – Franklin, Knox, Waldo, Somerset and Washington – were experiencing “high or substantial community transmission” of the virus. And Maine had the nation’s highest virus reproduction rate, also known as the R number, according to the website rt.live that tracks the spread of the virus using publicly available data.

The University of Maine System reported 37 cases among students or employees as of Wednesday, including one additional employee on the Orono campus and two students (one commuter and one on-campus resident) at the University of Southern Maine.

State health officials are urging Maine residents to be vigilant about wearing face coverings, which are required in all public settings, as well as maintaining physical distancing. Although Maine CDC continues to detect and track new outbreaks, Shah has been warning for several weeks that Maine’s rapid case growth appears to be largely driven by people gathering in small groups – whether family members, friends or co-workers – while not wearing masks or appropriately distancing.

Last Wednesday, the Mills administration expanded Maine’s mask-wearing mandate to require face coverings in all outdoor “public settings” – including sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds and sports venues – regardless of ability to physically distance.

In recent weeks, Mills also delayed the planned reopening of indoor service at bars and tasting rooms while rescinding the testing or quarantine exemptions for residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut visiting Maine. But Mills has, to date, not re-imposed a “lockdown” or other restrictions on non-essential activities.

Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said recently that the state’s hospitals are better-positioned now to manage the virus than during the spring. In addition, a larger number of the individuals contracting the virus are younger people who are less likely to develop severe, life-threatening symptoms requiring hospitalization.

“There is nothing else that’s good about it,” Michaud said in an interview last week. “Give it a week and we could see the hospitalizations start to ratchet up.”

One week later, the number of people hospitalized in Maine with COVID had risen from 36 to 59.

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