COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to increase as winter approaches – Community News
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COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to increase as winter approaches

State health officials reported 754 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, continuing an ongoing trend of heavy virus transmission that shows no sign of abating as winter approaches.

While the rate of vaccinations has increased, new infections and hospitalizations remain concentrated in areas with lower vaccination rates.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to change anytime soon,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at a media briefing Wednesday. “The Maine CDC expects the number of cases to remain high. … How long they stay high is essentially up to all of us.”

Three more deaths were reported on Thursday.

With Thursday’s cases and 882 new cases as of Wednesday, the seven-day daily average rose to 553 cases, up from 462 cases two weeks ago and 368 cases on average this time last month. Since the pandemic hit Maine nearly 19 months ago, there have been 110,346 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,220 deaths, according to CDC data. There have been 145 new deaths from COVID-19 in the past month, or nearly five a day.

The number of cases has been on a downward trend across the country for weeks – some attributable to lower testing volume – but lately things have leveled off. The seven-day average stood at 74,584 on Wednesday, which is slightly higher than two weeks earlier, according to the US CDC. The number of deaths still averages more than 1,000 a day across the country, and more than 750,000 Americans have died so far during the pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic, Maine has had fewer cases and deaths per capita than nearly any other state. In recent weeks, however, the infection rate in Maine has been well above the national average.

Maine’s seven-day case rate of 332 per 100,000 people is the 10th highest in the county, just behind New Hampshire, and more than double the national number of 157 per 100,000 people.

As of Wednesday, the state’s seven-day positive test rate was 6.9 percent, up from 5.5 percent two weeks or one incubation period. The test volume has also increased. The average test volume is about 555 tests per 100,000 people, an increase of 11 percent in two weeks.

“That’s on top of a 20 percent increase two weeks earlier,” Shah said.

Shah warned that the colder weather could play a bigger role for two reasons.

“The first is that more people gather indoors when it’s colder,” he said. “The other is that the cooler, drier air makes it easier for the virus to spread and enter the body.”

Last year, Maine and many other states saw huge spikes in cases around Thanksgiving and continued through the holidays and the New Year. The big difference, however, is that it started at a much lower place at this time last year. The average number of cases in Maine around this time last year was 161, compared to 553 on Thursday.

Another factor is the delta variant. The highly transmissible form of the coronavirus did not circulate in Maine during the holidays last year.

HOSPITALIZATIONS REMAIN HIGH

Hospital admissions also remain at a sustained high level, even approaching a new pandemic high.

On Thursday, 233 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 73 in intensive care and 31 on ventilators. After a low of 152 on Oct. 7, there have been more than 200 hospitalizations for 21 consecutive days. Thursday’s total is just two less than the September 25 high. The majority of people hospitalized have not been vaccinated, and many of the remaining patients have other serious health conditions that have left them vulnerable to the virus.

MaineGeneral in Augusta has experienced the most demanding week of the pandemic, with a daily average of 19.4 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the week ending Thursday, compared to 13.7 per day last week. The previous record of 18.3 was set in the last week of September. Wednesday’s number of clinical patients with COVID-19 of 22 was the highest the hospital has recorded.

dr. Steve Diaz, chief medical officer of MaineGeneral Health, said the increase in patient numbers has coincided with an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Kennebec County. The state reported 171 new cases in Kennebec County on Wednesday, the highest single-day increase since the pandemic began.

“We would encourage people in Kennebec County to continue masking in public areas, stay home if they are sick, and get vaccinated,” he said.

On Wednesday, officials at the Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston — which also accounts for record numbers of COVID-19 patients — said their spike was caused by low vaccination rates in the counties they mainly serve: Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin.

The average number of people hospitalized in the US was about 40,000 last week, down from the average of more than 55,000 this time last month.

VACCINATION RATE INCREASES

Vaccination coverage in Maine, meanwhile, has been increased to 7,264 doses per day, a 40 percent increase in two weeks, and new eligible 5- to 11-year-olds were enrolled this week. It also comes at a good time, as children under 12 accounted for 21 percent of all new cases in the past two weeks, Shah said.

In all, Maine delivered 948,020 final doses, accounting for 70.5 percent of all Mainers. By Thursday, 5,213 elementary school-aged children had received their first dose, and 42 percent were from Cumberland County, the state’s most vaccinated county.

Geographic differences in vaccination coverage have persisted for months, with rural and more conservative counties being shot much less frequently. In addition, younger adults as a whole are less likely to get their vaccines than people over the age of 50, especially in rural areas.

Shah explained that those geographic differences play a big role in current case trends.

“For epidemiological purposes, it’s just not the total percentage of the state that’s vaccinated. It’s where those people are,” he said. “That’s because, in epidemiological terms, vaccinated individuals create a barrier to the virus, a blockage that limits the space and ability of the virus to run.”

Shah said if state vaccination rates were uniform across the state, “our daily COVID case rates could very well be much lower.”

Instead, pockets of unvaccinated people keep the virus alive. In many cases, Shah said, these areas have lower vaccine immunity and lower natural immunity because they have been “isolated” from COVID until now.

“Not anymore,” he said. “The delta variant has blown through that insulation.”

Shah said that while the picture is bleak and could get worse, Mainers still has resources to protect themselves.

“None of this is to undermine or undermine the fact that the vaccines and vaccinations continue to work,” Shah said. “If you’re vaccinated, your risk of getting seriously ill from COVID or ending up in a hospital or dying remains low.”

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this report.


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