Hospitalizations for COVID-19 increased for a second week at Portland’s largest hospitals, matching or exceeding the peak levels of early April, when the first wave of the disease crested in southern Maine.

Maine Medical Center, which has had nearly half of all the state’s confirmed coronavirus inpatients through most of the crisis, saw its COVID-19 inpatient count rise to tie its all-time peak of 35 on Monday before dipping to 31 Thursday. The number of COVID-19 inpatients remained in the teens for an entire month ending May 20, but have been steadily rising since.

Portland’s other major hospital, Mercy, set a new daily record of 10 COVID-19 inpatients on Wednesday, and stood at eight Thursday, capping its busiest week of the pandemic. Between April 15 and April 28, Mercy had had no COVID-19 patients at all, but its burden has crept steady upward for a month now.

The data, which was collected from the hospitals by the Press Herald, comes amid other indications that the pandemic is having a second wind in southern Maine, where the number of new cases of the disease has been rising for weeks, a trend that began before the state substantially increased testing. The new figures covered the seven days ending May 28.

Southern Maine Health Care Medical Center in Biddeford – which has had the most pandemic inpatients overall after MaineMed – has also returned to the inpatient levels it experienced during the first wave: between three and seven inpatients being treated each day. York Hospital in York has remained quiet, though, reporting no COVID-19 inpatients for the period.

Androscoggin County has seen a surge in new COVID-19 cases, but hospitalizations for the disease remained stable at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston at three to five patients a day for the week, up from two to four the week before. Lewiston-Auburn’s other large hospital, St. Mary’s, did not provide its data.

MaineGeneral in Augusta, the hospital which has had the third-largest pandemic burden to date, also had stable coronavirus inpatient levels at two to four a day, up from one to two the week before.

Hospitals in other parts of the state had flat or declining pandemic patient loads for a seventh week running, including Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, which had just one patient each day of the period, compared to a peak of seven on May 6. Brunswick’s Mid Coast Hospital has had no COVID-19 inpatients at all for the five days ending Thursday.

Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield reported its first coronavirus inpatient Thursday, but several smaller hospitals that had patients in the past reported none for the week, including Franklin Memorial in Farmington, Bridgton Hospital, and Waldo in Belfast.

In all cases, hospitalizations can end three ways: recovery, death, or transfer to another facility. The data – current through May 28 – does not include outpatients or inpatients who were suspected of having the virus but never tested.

The total statewide hospitalization count reported by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention stood at 58 on Thursday, up from 43 a week earlier.

Maine CDC data improvements delayed

Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator, because it typically takes two or three weeks after exposure to the virus before someone may become sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. But it is the one available metric that is not effected by how many people are being tested.

It has been difficult for decision makers and the public to evaluate the main pandemic metrics put forth by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention – new daily cases and active cases – because the agency is alone in the United States in not being able to also supply the number of tests performed overall on a given day.

On May 20, Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah announced the agency would be providing the data “in the coming days” and spokesman Robert Long said it would be available by the end of this week. Thursday evening, Long told the Press Herald via email that they would provide it “in the near future” and were “currently validating reporting systems to ensure the accuracy of results reporting from the more than 80 entities that send results to us.”

Maine CDC is also unable to report how many tests have been performed in each county, even on a weekly or cumulative basis, though spokesman Robert Long says they are working on being able to do so. Asked via email if he had an update on when these metrics might be made available, Long did not directly answer. Disclosure of this data would allow the public to tell if the proportion of people testing positive is going up or down in each county, a key metric of the disease’s spread.

Dr. Shah also said May 20 that the state would soon begin releasing confirmed case data on a finer scale. Maine is the only state in New England that doesn’t report this information on the municipal level, instead providing only county totals. But in response to a public records request for the data by the Press Herald, the agency said it would take six months to provide.

On Thursday, seven people working at the Maine Emergency Management Agency’s operations center came down with COVID-19-like symptoms overnight, forcing the facility to close. Two were Maine CDC employees. Dr. Shah normally spends part of his workday at the center, which is where his daily press briefing has been hosted.

After more than a month-long statewide lockdown, Gov. Janet Mills allowed barbershops, hairdressers, and car dealers to reopen statewide May 1 as part of a phased easing of restrictions. Retail outlets in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties followed on May 11 and restaurants on May 18. Retail outlets will also be allowed to reopen in the other four counties – York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and Penobscot – on June 1, but plans to also open restaurant dining rooms, fitness centers, gyms and nail salons have been put on hold, except for dining rooms in Penobscot County.

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