The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths reported by the state spiked again on Wednesday, but health officials have largely worked through a backlog of positive tests that was stuck in the thousands last week.
State health officials reported 836 new cases of COVID-19 and 29 additional deaths. Most of the deaths – 22 – occurred last month and were discovered during a review of vital records. And many of the cases were detected over the past week but had not been processed and reported by the state until Wednesday.
There was some initial confusion when the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention updated its data just after 8 a.m. Wednesday and reported only 300 cases and nine deaths. About two hours later, a Maine CDC spokesman alerted the media that the totals were incomplete because of a computer system upgrade. The data were revised later in the morning.
During a briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon, CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said the daily numbers are updated each morning through an automated system. He said officials quickly noticed that the totals were incomplete, but he didn’t explain why it took two hours to notify media members about the problem.
Shah said glitches like this, though rare, are inevitable over the course of the pandemic.
Maine’s daily case reports, including the one posted Wednesday, also have been affected by a backlog of positive tests in recent weeks after a surge of cases overwhelmed the agency’s ability to screen the cases each day to eliminate duplicates and follow-ups.
After adding staff to the team that verifies positive test reports, the Maine CDC’s lab has effectively wiped out the backlog, which had been as high as 2,500 cases last week. Shah said Wednesday that fewer than 100 outstanding cases are pending.
With Wednesday’s new cases, the state’s seven-day daily case average increased to 593, up from 457 two weeks ago and from 316 cases on average this time last month.
Since the pandemic began, there have been 93,201 confirmed or probable cases and 1,065 deaths. One of the deaths reported Wednesday was a person in their 30s, just the fourth such death in Maine.
There are some positive signs, though, that the recent surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant might be waning.
Maine’s positivity rate, which reflects the percentage of tests coming back positive for coronavirus, has been declining in recent days. The seven-day positivity rate now stands at 4.3 percent, well below the more than 6 percent rate from a couple weeks ago.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 also have been dropping steadily. The number of people hospitalized on Wednesday fell to 166, the lowest it’s been in more than a month. Of those, 51 individuals are in critical care, which is the lowest total since Aug. 22, according to the CDC. Total hospitalizations have decreased by 42 percent since peaking at 235 on Sept. 25, just 11 days ago, and the number in critical care has decreased by 65 percent during that time.
Cases have been falling nationally for several weeks. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day average is now just below 100,000 cases per day, down from 160,000 this time last month. In New England, only Maine and New Hampshire are still seeing cases rise.
The average number of COVID-19 deaths per day nationwide has dropped from 1,608 in early September to 1,459 now.
Dr. James Jarvis, who is helping lead Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response, said he is seeing “encouraging news” elsewhere that he hopes will lead to lower rates in Maine, which tends to lag some other states by about two weeks. But Jarvis cautioned that in parts of western Maine – and particularly in areas with low vaccination rates – Northern Light is still seeing higher infection and hospitalization rates.
“While it does looks brighter today than last week … there is still a word of caution,” Jarvis said during a separate media briefing on Wednesday. “We are talking about a positivity rate above 9 percent, so that means nearly one out of every 10 tests that we run is positive for COVID-19. So there is still a tremendous amount of community spread out there.”
On the vaccination front, 74.4 percent of all eligible Mainers had received either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-shot vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson as of Wednesday. That figure drops to 65.5 percent when including children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Maine continues to have among the highest full vaccination rates in the country, trailing only Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
As has been the case for several months, there are strong correlations between case and vaccination rates.
All but one of the five Maine counties with the highest case rates per 100,000 people over the last seven days are in the bottom half of counties when it comes to vaccination rate.
By comparison, the five counties with the lowest case rates over the last seven days are all in the top half of counties for vaccination rates.
VIRUS SPREADING IN RURAL AREAS
“Rural counties with lower vaccination rates – regions where there remain pockets of unvaccinated – that’s where the virus is spreading, and that’s where people are getting sick enough to be hospitalized,” Shah said.
“It doesn’t just matter how many people in a state are vaccinated, it matters where they are in relation to others,” he added, explaining that “pockets of low vaccination means the virus has room to run.”
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew also pointed out that even though the state has a high overall vaccination rate, there are still more than 223,000 adults who have not yet gotten their shots. The recent surge, while high, is still far below that.
In recent weeks, interest in vaccinations has increased, fueled largely but not entirely by third doses for older Mainers and those who are immunocompromised.
On average, Maine has been administering 4,900 doses per day over the last seven days, doubling the rate from just two weeks ago. Of those, 2,700 doses per day have been third doses given as boosters. In all, slightly more than 35,000 third doses of Pfizer vaccine have been administered so far.
But there has been an increase in final regular doses as well. Over the last seven days, the state has averaged 1,344 second doses, compared to 931 doses during the previous seven-day period. That’s a 44 percent increase.
Shah also said October is fixing to be a busy month on the vaccine front. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to make rulings on booster doses for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines – so far, only the Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for third does – and also will decide on a recommendation for vaccinations among children 5 to 11 years old.