Maine reported 287 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest daily total since mid-May, and health officials expect to see more high numbers in the coming days.

“I don’t have a metaphor, I don’t have a turn of phrase. I’ll be straight with everybody: I’m concerned,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah said during a media briefing Tuesday.

Two additional deaths were reported Wednesday as well, one in Cumberland County, the other in Franklin County. The man and woman were both over the age of 70.

The seven-day daily case average increased to 175, according to data from the CDC. That’s up from 149 cases on average two weeks ago and from 61 cases this time last month. The positivity rate, or the percentage of all tests that come back positive, increased again to 4.5 percent, up from about 3.5 percent two weeks ago.

At the lowest point, in early July, the state’s positivity rate dropped to 0.45 percent. It’s been climbing ever since. Some states have rates that exceed 10 percent or more.

Shah explained that he expects big numbers in the coming days because his staff had 1,700 positive test results during the previous 36 hours that must be reviewed to determine how many were indeed new cases. Testing volume has increased dramatically in recent weeks as the delta variant has ravaged the state, from 258 tests per 100,000 people two weeks ago to 333 tests per 100,000 now.

“Delta is not just the predominant variant in Maine, it is the variant in Maine,” he said. “This is a concern. Delta is more contagious, and may lead to more severe illness, which may lead to higher rates of death.”

Amid the spike in cases, vaccinations also have ticked up in recent weeks. Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that, based on U.S. CDC data, 80 percent of all eligible Maine residents have received at least one dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson version. Seven other states have reached that milestone, including every New England state.

Maine’s high vaccination rate hasn’t been enough to prevent the recent surge, though. With the addition of Wednesday’s new cases, 15 of 16 counties in Maine are now at either high or substantial transmission, which means at least 50 cases per 100,000 people during the most recent seven-day period. That means masks are recommended indoors for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, everywhere except Sagadahoc County.

Penobscot County has the highest rate of transmission in Maine over the last seven days, followed closely by York County.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 74,309 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, 2,259 hospitalizations and 926 deaths. Despite the recent spike, Maine continues to have among the lowest infection and death rates in the nation, a reflection of how bad things have been elsewhere.

The number of people hospitalized Wednesday increased to 125, the highest total since mid-May. Of those, 60 are in critical care and 27 are on ventilators. Hospitalizations have jumped by nearly 150 percent in Maine over the last two weeks and health officials have said at least 75 percent of those hospitalized have been unvaccinated. Shah also explained that vaccinated people who end up hospitalized almost always have another serious underlying health condition.

The recent rise in vaccination rates can be attributed to both the surge and an increasing number of employee mandates. The number of shots administered per day increased by 35 percent last week over the previous week. From Sunday, Aug. 8 through Saturday, Aug. 14, the state delivered 1,635 shots per day. From Aug. 15-21, that increased to 2,209 doses per day, according to the CDC.

Overall, 836,856 people have gotten either a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That represents 62.3 percent of all Mainers and 70.7 percent of those 12 and older who are eligible.

 

Despite the uptick, there remains disparity in vaccination rates between southern and coastal counties and northern, rural counties. Cumberland County’s vaccination rate is the highest at 83 percent of eligible individuals. Three counties – Piscataquis, Somerset and Franklin – have yet to reach 60 percent.

The state also has struggled to persuade younger adults in some areas to get vaccinated. Among 20-39 year-olds in Cumberland County, the rate of vaccination is 74 percent. No other county has reached 60 percent, and just 38 percent of Somerset County residents in that age bracket have gotten their shots.

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the vaccine produced by Pfizer, likely opening the door to additional vaccination mandates by businesses, schools and governments across the country. The vaccines produced by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson currently have emergency use authorization from the FDA and are being reviewed for full approval.

Federal officials also have authorized booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for individuals beginning next month, and an additional dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine could soon receive authorization as well.

Maine has updated its rules for health care workers to include getting a COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. This decision has been met with pushback from some groups, emergency medical services personnel notably, who passed their own rule this week that narrows the scope of the CDC’s rule.

Shah said he was disappointed by the EMS board decision, which would allow for more time for unvaccinated individuals to get vaccinated and would exempt some employees who do not interact with patients.

“I recognize that there have been those who have expressed concern about the timeline,” he said. “But COVID-19 vaccines are free, easy to obtain and are available today. I’m going to be straight with everyone: There is no reason anyone in Maine, health care provider or not, cannot go out today or tomorrow and get a COVID-19 shot.”

Shah also said asking health care professionals to take certain measures is hardly new. He said vaccination requirements for other diseases have existed for 20 years.

“You would not want to go to a hospital where your healthcare worker could accidentally give you something like hepatitis,” he said.

Further, Shah said, of the 21 open outbreaks being investigated by the state right now, nine are in health care settings.

“This is further evidence of why vaccinating our frontline health care workers is more important now than it ever has been before,” he said.

As the state braces for an even bigger surge in new cases, Shah acknowledged the frustration felt by many.

“The concerns about breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, as well as concerns around children, have muddied our ability to gauge our own day-to-day risk,” he said. “Just as we all were starting to venture back out into the world, to hug, to eat, to laugh and enjoy the same airspace that many of us have not been able to have. I just want to acknowledge that in some ways the delta chapter of the pandemic saga is more confusing than ever.

“Here is what has not changed: vaccinated people remain safer than they’ve been for the past year and a half, and unvaccinated are perhaps at an even higher risk than they were back in March of 2020.”


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