Nov. 30—Maine health officials reported 1,173 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, covering the five days from Thanksgiving through Monday.
The number of patients in Maine hospitals reached a pandemic high on Tuesday. And the state reported a total of 21 additional deaths since the last full update before the holiday.
"Sadly, many of those (deaths) were from the holiday weekend, and not from our vital records review. The virus is not abating," Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Twitter.
Two of the deaths were individuals in their 40s and three were in their 50s. The rest were 60 or older.
With the new cases, the state's seven-day average dropped to 388, compared to 483 cases per day two weeks earlier. That decline is expected to be temporary, however. In recent weeks, the average has often dipped on Tuesdays because fewer tests are conducted and processed on weekends.
Officials in Maine and nationwide are expecting to see increased transmission from holiday gatherings that will fuel a jump in new infections in the coming days. And the state's positivity rate — or the percentage of all tests that come back positive — climbed on Tuesday to 11.3 percent, a troubling statistic that indicates the virus is already spreading more rapidly than at any time during the pandemic. Nationwide, the positivity rate is 6 percent.
The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals increased to a record 330 on Tuesday — the eighth consecutive day of at least 300 people in the hospital. Of those, 100 are in critical care beds and 46 are on ventilators. In the last month, the daily average has increased by 69 percent, which has forced hospitals to once again alter their operations to free up capacity.
About 65 percent of the COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals have not been vaccinated, and about 85 to 90 percent of those in intensive care are unvaccinated, Shah said on Twitter Tuesday.
Virus transmission has been at a sustained high level in Maine for weeks, and cases have started to rise across the country as well. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day average on Nov. 24 — before testing dropped off for the holiday — was 94,178 cases, which is an increase of 47 percent from one month earlier.
While it's too soon to see any spike in cases from the Thanksgiving holiday, officials have said they don't expect transmission to abate anytime soon, and the potential arrival of the newest variant of concern, omicron, creates more uncertainty. No cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed in Maine, or in the United States, but health officials are on heightened alert because of the possibility that it's even more contagious than the delta variant that is responsible for the latest wave of cases.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the school of public health at Brown University, said the drop-off in cases over the last few days was expected because of the holiday, but he said that's not necessarily a good thing.
"Some of the drop-off is lack of reporting, but a lot of it is sick people not getting tested. That's a problem because ... with less testing more infected people are spreading (it) to others," Jha posted on social media Tuesday.
Jha said the drop-off this year is even greater than last Thanksgiving, and he expects "a sharp jump in reported infections later this week," possibly more than 100,000 per day nationwide.
"It'll remind us: whatever happens with omicron, the variant killing Americans right now is delta," he said.
Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement Monday saying that her advisers are closely monitoring the new variant. She also urged Mainers to remain cautious and to get vaccinated, if they haven't already do so, or get a booster.
In a lengthy social media post on Monday, Shah said that there is still a lot to learn about the omicron variant. The reason this variant is concerning, he said, is because it "exhibits an unusual number of mutations," on the virus' spike protein, or the "part of the virus that allows it to gain access to human cells and reproduce."
"For the umpteenth time in the #COVID19 pandemic, we are about to see the scientific process unfold before our eyes and in real time," Shah said. "One question is whether #omicron exhibits higher transmissibility than even the #delta variant. Early, inferential evidence suggests that it may, but more complete epidemiological analysis is needed to quantify this and arrive at a more precise reproductive rate."
Shah said early research suggests that the omicron variant doesn't lead to more severe symptoms and that vaccinations appear to still be effective.
"It's important to note that many variants generated a fair amount of concern initially, but later proved not to be drivers of spread/serious disease," he said. "We should take the same approach here: gather data around key questions first, then react."
Since the pandemic began, there have been 119,662 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,324 deaths, according to data tracked by the Maine CDC. Both remain among the lowest per capita among U.S. states, even with the recent surge.
As for vaccinations, Maine has administered 913,490 final doses of vaccine, which accounts for 68 percent of all residents, and 289,634 booster shots, representing 21.5 percent of the population.
For weeks and weeks during the recent surge, Maine CDC data has shown that counties where vaccination rates are lowest are seeing the most spread.
For instance, over the last 28 days, Cumberland County has seen the lowest rate of new cases per capita, 67 per 10,000 people. Cumberland County also has the state's highest rate of vaccination, 78 percent. Lincoln and Knox counties each have vaccination rates of 73 percent and have seen 75 and 85 cases per 10,000 people, respectively, during that time.
On the other end, Androscoggin and Franklin counties are tied for the highest rate of new cases over the last 28 days — 173 per 10,000 people — with Oxford County close behind at 170 cases per 10,000.
Franklin County has a vaccination rate of just 57 percent, which ranks behind only Somerset for lowest, and Oxford and Androscoggin have rates of 59 percent and 61 percent, respectively.