People under 20 years old accounted for nearly half of the 667 new COVID-19 cases reported by the state Tuesday, a striking shift from the early days of the pandemic and a significant increase from earlier this summer.

Maine’s education commissioner told lawmakers Tuesday that schools are struggling with the surge, and have so far reported nearly 1,000 cases in the first weeks of classes.

“Schools are feeling very overwhelmed, nervous, disappointed and discouraged,” Pender Makin told members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs during a briefing.

A total of 319 new cases were reported Tuesday among Maine residents younger than 20, representing 48 percent of all new cases. Just one month ago, people younger than 20 accounted for 17.5 percent of the state’s new cases. One year ago, people under 20 accounted for less than 1 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Maine.

The second largest group of cases – 13 percent – reported Tuesday was among people in their 20s. People over 70 years old accounted for 8 percent of new cases.

The burden of the disease is shifting as the more contagious delta variant surges among the unvaccinated in Maine and nationwide. While about three quarters of Maine adults are vaccinated, there is no vaccine available for children 12 or younger. The increase also coincides with the return to in-person learning, which took place the week before Labor Day for most Maine schools.

A vaccine could be approved for younger children by late October or November. Meanwhile, 74.7 percent of Mainers over 20 have been fully vaccinated and 56 percent of people between 12 and 19 have been fully vaccinated.

A NATIONWIDE TREND

The increase in cases among children is happening across the country. After declining in early summer, childhood cases have increased exponentially, with nearly 500,000 cases in a two-week period between the end of August and early September, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week.

“This is exactly what they’ve seen in other parts of the country where kids have gone back to school and COVID just skyrockets in that age group,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for the MaineHealth network of hospitals. “It’s concerning in that we want to make sure we have as many layers of protection as possible in place to keep our kids, teachers and staff at schools protected.”

Those protections include universal indoor masking, proper ventilation, COVID testing, physical distancing and vaccines for those who are eligible.

Schools around Maine have reported close to 1,000 cases so far in September. By comparison, cases in schools hit 968 over a 30-day period last April, which at that point was a high for the 2020-21 school year. There are about 172,000 students and 47,000 teachers and school staff in Maine.

The education department isn’t publishing the total number of cases in schools this year as it did last school year, but is instead publishing a weekly list of schools with outbreaks. As of last Thursday, the state reported 14 school outbreaks. With the prevalence of the delta variant in Maine leading to an increase of cases in schools, however, the department is planning to begin publicly posting weekly cases at the school level. A date hasn’t been set for when the publication of that data will start, said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the department.

Already, hundreds if not thousands of students and staff across the state have had to quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who was infected. Several schools also have canceled football games due to cases among players, outbreaks at schools or close contacts being identified among players.

The case surge has strained school staffs, Makin told lawmakers. “Maybe some of you are feeling the same way because I think we were all looking forward to a much brighter start to the school year,” she said. “People are just overwhelmed with, ‘What’s with all the COVID?'”

Makin said the return to in-person learning and  growing efforts to identify positive cases early through pooled testing are two things that could be contributing to the high case numbers. But the impact of pooled testing on the case totals is so far limited.

While 393 public and private schools in Maine had signed up for pooled testing, which gives schools the ability to conduct weekly testing for groups of students, only 66 schools had started testing as of Friday. Of the 934 tests that have been run, 36 have resulted in positive pools. If a pool comes back positive, students and staff in that pool are given rapid tests in order to identify who is infected and needs to isolate before spreading the disease.

Makin said it appears the case load in schools is reflective of high numbers of cases in the community, but it’s hard to know for sure because the school year is so young. “There hasn’t even been time in the school year for us to hypothesize around whether or not the large number of cases are indicative of in-school spread,” Makin said.

ADDING TO PARENTS’ ANXIETY

The high numbers of cases among young people is adding to parents’ anxiety about the new school year.

Mustafa Hassan of Portland said he worries about his four youngest children who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

“Everybody is really concerned about (the high number of cases) and the lack of a vaccine among younger children,” he said as he waited to pick up his daughter from King Middle School Tuesday. “I would prefer they be remote for school,” he said. “We have no choice.”

Neba Tashoria, who has two children in middle and high school in Portland, said she feels “very bad” about the number of children testing positive for COVID. “I don’t know why they aren’t closing schools with so many cases. I’d rather have them at home,” she said.

Some students, however, don’t want to go back to remote learning.

Ramona Falatko, a sixth-grader at South Portland’s Mahoney Middle School, said she is happy to be in-person at school and only mildly worried about COVID.

Ramona Falatko, 11, of South Portland, said she is “a little bit annoyed” that she cannot receive the vaccine because she is one year shy of the FDA-approved age for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and she plans to get vaccinated as soon as she is able to. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I’m being pretty safe and wearing a mask and social distancing,” said Falatko, 11. “I think it’s a good thing (to be in-person). It’s harder to learn when you’re just on a Google Meets. It’s not a lot of the time, but sometimes there are technical issues and stuff. It’s easier to be in-person and have a person to go to.”

Falatko did say she would be less worried if people who have access to vaccines would get the shot.

“I’m not too worried, but I am still worried about it because there are so many people who could be vaccinated but aren’t,” she said. “If everyone who could get vaccinated did, I feel like COVID would barely be here.”

INTENT ON IN-PERSON

Makin said the state “is not looking at any kind of whole-scale school shutdowns” and the department continues to believe in-person learning can take place safely with the proper health protocols.

“Unfortunately, we had this very extraordinary, unanticipated spike in COVID collide with the very opening days of school,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a readjustment and people are going to settle into realizing we are living with COVID for a while. It’s not a thing where we’re going to walk away and say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ We need to learn how to reasonably live in an environment where a pretty dangerous, often deadly disease is out there in our midst.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to a request Tuesday for a more detailed age breakdown of the new cases, but the state did release new data about COVID-19 among young people since the start of the pandemic.

As of Sept. 6, there have been 15,706 cases among people under 20, representing 19.6 percent of all cases. Of those, 41 percent were in people between 15 and 19; 24 percent were in those between 10 and 14, 20 percent were between 5 and 9, and 15 percent were under 5. Fifty-six people under 25 have been hospitalized since the start of the pandemic, according to the CDC.

‘NOT A DISEASE OF THE ELDERLY’

Dr. Joan Boomsma, chief medical officer at MaineHealth, which operates Maine Medical Center and seven other hospitals in the state, said the recent data makes it clear that this is “not a disease of the elderly.” While MaineHealth still has older patients, the age of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 has steadily dropped.

At Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland, there have been one, two or three children hospitalized with COVID “most days for the past few weeks” but thankfully none on Tuesday, Boomsma said.

“We are not seeing large numbers of children being hospitalized, although certainly some – and we did not see that previously,” Boomsma said in an interview on Tuesday.

Boomsma said MaineHealth staff have talked about how the hospitals will respond if demand for pediatric hospital beds increases significantly because of school-related spread. “But we are hoping that with masking and distancing in schools, we will not see severe disease in children,” Boomsma said.

Meanwhile, Maine continues to have high rates of hospitalizations, and on Monday broke a record of the number of people needing mechanical ventilators to breathe, with 40 people in Maine hospitals on ventilators.

Nearly all patients in critical care, and 70 to 75 percent of all hospitalized patients, have not been vaccinated, the Maine CDC has said.

Along with the 667 new cases of COVID-19 over a three-day period, the state also reported eight additional deaths Tuesday. They included three residents of Aroostook County, one resident of Hancock County, three residents of Penobscot County and one resident from York County.

Five were women and three were men. Two were in their 60s, three in their 70s and three were age 80 or older. Seven of the deaths were the result of a vital records review with the dates of death between Aug. 8-27.

The Maine CDC over the last few weeks has needed to clear backlogs from weekend cases because there have been so many positive test results coming in. It was not clear on Tuesday if there would be a backlog this week.

The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 441.1 on Tuesday, compared to 359 a week ago and 173.7 a month ago. Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 81,177 cases of COVID-19, and 969 deaths.

Despite recent increases in case counts, Maine’s 26.3 cases per 100,000 residents is below the national average of 44 per 100,000. Connecticut has the lowest case rate in the nation at 15.2 per 100,000, while West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee have the worst rates in the nation, with each more than 90 cases per capita.

Staff Writers Joe Lawlor, Kevin Miller and Gillian Graham contributed to this report. 

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