Sep. 22—The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals, including those in intensive care units, pushed further into record territory Wednesday as the delta variant surge continues to strain the state's health care system.
Maine reported 614 more cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and five additional deaths, with virtually all Maine counties experiencing high levels of transmission.
The current surge has eclipsed last winter's peak for hospitalizations even though it has occurred after vaccines became widely available. Though 65 percent of the state's population is fully vaccinated, the delta variant is easily spread and is finding pools of unvaccinated people who are at far higher risk of serious illness.
"One of the things driving cases in Maine is clusters of folks who are not yet vaccinated," Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Wednesday.
Hospitalizations have been rising steadily for weeks and have set new records every day this week.
On Sunday, Maine tied the previous record of 207 hospitalizations set at the peak of last winter's surge, only to surpass it Monday with 214 hospital admissions. On Tuesday, the record was eclipsed again, with 225 people hospitalized in Maine, including 82 in critical care.
Wednesday's totals ticked up yet again, with 226 hospitalized, 88 in critical care and 40 needing ventilators for breathing assistance.
While the virus is spreading among the vaccinated, 65 to 75 percent of those who become sick enough to be hospitalized are unvaccinated, Shah said. And more than 90 percent of those in intensive care are unvaccinated, he said. Shah said those percentages can change on a weekly basis, but have remained consistent over time.
However, one metric may foreshadow an easing of the pandemic.
The state's positivity rate, which is the percent of tests returned that come back positive, has declined from 6.06 percent a week ago to 4.45 percent on Wednesday.
When the positivity rate goes down, it's an indication that testing is capturing most of the cases of the virus, giving state health workers a better chance to stamp out outbreaks. Higher positivity rates mean the virus is circulating widely through the population. Other parts of the country that have seen rampant transmission have reported positivity rates of 15 to 20 percent or higher.
Shah said during a media briefing Wednesday that it's too early to call the decline in positivity rates a trend, but referred to it as "small signs of optimism."
"We are starting to see a slight but perceptible decrease in positivity every day," he said.
Shah said if the pandemic does not improve in the coming weeks and months, "what's at stake with the trajectory we are on is nothing less than people's lives."
Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 85,156 cases of COVID-19, and 1,007 deaths. On Tuesday, Maine marked the somber milestone of crossing 1,000 deaths since the pandemic reached the state in March 2020.
"Our whole state, our whole communities are lessened by their loss," Gov. Janet Mills said during Wednesday's media briefing. Mills urged those who have not yet been vaccinated to get their shots to protect themselves, their families and their communities, and to prevent hospitals from becoming even more overwhelmed with illnesses that could be avoided.
The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 480.9 on Wednesday, compared to 444.1 a week ago and 162.3 a month ago. Maine's virus prevalence is now much closer to the national average, at 35.8 cases per 100,000 residents on an average day, compared to 40 nationally, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Alaska and West Virginia currently have the worst virus rates in the country with more than 100 per 100,000, while Connecticut is the lowest at 19.4.
In Maine, case counts on Wednesday were led by York County with 150 new cases, followed by Penobscot County with 122 and Cumberland County with 90.
On the vaccination front, the state reported on Wednesday that 874,508 Maine people have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, representing 65 percent of the state's 1.3 million residents.
Shah said there has been an increase in the pace of vaccinations in the last two weeks, up from about 2,000 people a day to 2,400 people a day.
Mills hopes more people get vaccinated and expects schools to have universal masking policies to help them keep open.
"People need to get vaccinated so we can keep schools open," Mills said.