The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 173 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the seventh straight day the state has recorded more than 100 cases. Just since this weekend, the Maine CDC has opened investigations into 14 new outbreaks, including a three-person outbreak at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“The pot is starting to boil over and the bubbles are showing up everywhere,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Monday.

Even as case numbers continue to be dire both in Maine and across the country, good news is emerging as well. A second vaccine candidate – this one developed by Massachusetts-based Moderna – showed 94.5 percent effectiveness in trials, the company said on Monday. Last week, Pfizer announced its vaccine was 90 percent effective in late-stage trials.

The vaccine announcements boosted public health experts’ confidence that an end to the pandemic is attainable, even though it will take several more months to approve and distribute the vaccine.

The seven-day new case average in Maine dropped slightly from Sunday, from 182.6 to 179 on Monday, but it’s still nearly double the average from two weeks ago. At this time last month, the average number of daily cases was 28.4. Hospitalizations have been rising steadily, too. As of Monday, 69 people were hospitalized, including 28 in critical care.

Nationally, the pandemic continues to trend in the wrong direction, with more than 11 million cases since the pandemic began, and more than 250,000 deaths.

Shah said the 14 new outbreak investigations in three days are an indication of how widespread the virus is in Maine.

“These outbreaks are a direct outcropping of increasing levels of community transmission that we have started to see in the last couple of weeks,” he said during a media briefing on Monday. “The ground has been seeded in ever-increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.”

The cause of the Maine Med outbreak is being investigated, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said. Caroline Cornish, Maine Med spokeswoman, said the cases are “associated with (the hospital’s) cardiothoracic intensive care unit. The cases include two staff members and one patient.”

“Both of the positive staff members have been placed in quarantine and put on paid leave while they recover,” she said. “(Maine Med’s) employee health department is conducting contact tracing for the exposures and as a result of this outbreak, Maine Med will test all staff who work on the impacted unit, as well as staff identified as part of (the hospital’s) contact tracing.”

Cornish said the hospital will temporarily limit admission to the cardiothoracic intensive care unit for “urgent and emergent cardiothoracic cases only. Once testing is completed, Maine Medical Center will resume care for elective patients.”

Meanwhile, Monday was the first day that residents from Massachusetts, where COVID-19 case counts are rising, were no longer exempt from the requirement that travelers to Maine receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arriving or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

A test technician takes a self-administered swab from a woman Nov. 13 at the COVID-19 mobile testing site at Great Falls Plaza in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Despite grim case numbers, as well as rising hospitalizations and deaths, health experts welcomed the  vaccine announcements by Pfizer and Moderna. Both companies are expected to seek emergency use authorization from the FDA this month, and potentially could distribute vaccines before the end of 2020. Both are expected to manufacture 20 million doses each by the end of 2020 and hundreds of millions of doses in 2021. The vaccines will require people to receive two shots taken within weeks of each other.

Both Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines use similar and newly established methods of inoculating people. The mRNA technology works by attacking the spike protein of the novel coronavirus, stopping the virus from invading human cells.

“This is probably better than almost any expert’s expectation,” Dr. Barry Bloom, former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a Monday conference call with reporters. “To have both of them validate each other is a tremendous advance. It’s a momentous occasion.”

The Moderna vaccine will not require the ultra-cold storage that will be needed for the Pfizer vaccine, which means the Moderna vaccine will be easier to distribute, Shah said.

Shah said the Pfizer vaccine’s ultra-cold storage requirement – needing freezers that can maintain minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit) – poses logistical difficulties, such as making it hard to store the vaccine in enough places to be easily accessible for the general population. The Moderna vaccine, in contrast, can be stored for 30 days in a refrigerator, or longer in a freezer.

“The Pfizer vaccine will require bringing people to the vaccine, but with the Moderna vaccine, we can bring the vaccine to the people,” Shah said.

The ultra-cold storage required for the Pfizer vaccine also means purchasing specialized gloves and goggles to safely handle the materials. Shah said Maine is purchasing two ultra-cold freezers to assist in the storage of the Pfizer vaccine.

The Maine CDC is preparing for both vaccines, but Shah also said that without additional federal money, it will be more difficult to quickly roll out vaccine distribution. Shah said he’s not yet sure how much money will be needed to ensure the vaccine is distributed with “velocity and equity.”

Even if the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved this month, the vaccines would not be widely available until well into 2021.

Among the first groups to get vaccinated will include health care workers and first responders. After that, vulnerable populations, such as those living in nursing homes and other congregate care centers would get the shot. Next in line would be school staff, those with certain underlying health conditions, seniors and correctional centers.

Maine says in its plan that it would have the capacity to vaccinate 80 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people within 12 weeks of when a vaccine becomes readily available.

Since the pandemic reached Maine, there have been 9,117 total cases – 8,180 confirmed and 937 probable. Additionally, 165 people have died.

New cases were reported in all but two counties, Piscataquis and Waldo, on Monday. Cumberland County still has the most cases, with 3,270. York County has the second most with 1,814. Androscoggin County is third with 1,203.

Shah said that while there have been 212 cases linked to schools, the actual transmission of the disease appears to be occurring in the community. The measures that schools have taken – such as wearing masks, keeping physical distance and reducing the number of students at school by having a combination of in-person and remote learning – have been working.

“Keeping kids in schools with in-person learning continues to be one of our priorities,” Shah said. “We have seen very little transmission of COVID-19 within the four walls of the school.”

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