State health officials reported 735 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday as well as six additional deaths, marking the second straight day that Maine has topped 700 new infections.

However, a portion of that large number of cases — as well as Wednesday’s record-setting 748 cases — likely stems from the state laboratory reducing a sizable backlog of cases that accrued amid the worsening pandemic. As a result, state health officials have cautioned that daily tabulations will likely include both new cases and backlogged cases from previous days.

Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations in Maine is quickening as more doses arrive through the federal distribution system. Total vaccinations increased from roughly 8,000 on Wednesday to 13,089 as of Thursday morning, reflecting the push to inoculate high-risk health care workers and nursing home residents.

The 735 confirmed and probable cases reported Thursday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention comes one day after Maine shattered the previous single-day high by more than 150 cases.

The state’s death toll from COVID-19 also continues to mount, with 127 of Maine’s 317 total deaths occurring within the past four weeks.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 21,226 total cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in the state in mid-March, with half of those occurring within the past month. Despite the recent surge, however, Maine continues to have among the nation’s lowest per-capita infection and death rates as states across the country report similar record-setting trends.

At least part of this week’s massive numbers of infections are likely attributable to what Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah described as “extensive process improvements” at the state testing lab, although Shah also warned that the increases remain “concerning.”

The Maine CDC reported a total of 317 positive molecular-based tests on Thursday, which are considered “confirmed cases, as well as 105 positive antigen tests, which are initially designated as “probable.”  Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said a total of 277 cases “were assigned for follow-up investigation yesterday,” indicating that they were new cases. It was not possible, given the fluidity of the situation, to say precisely how many of the 735 newly reported cases were attributable to the backlog.

The backlog began earlier this fall as Maine CDC lab as staff struggled to keep pace with the time-consuming verification process amid a massive, post-Thanksgiving surge in new cases.

Speaking during Wednesday’s briefing, Shah said Maine CDC has streamlined that process and brought on additional staff to address the backlog. Those changes contributed to Wednesday’s record-high numbers and could result in higher numbers on subsequent days, Shah said.

“Even though this increase is concerning, and it does represent a true number . . . it does not represent a striking increase within a 24-hour period,” Shah said during Wednesday’s media briefing.

Shah noted that Maine’s positivity rate, which is the percent of test results that come back positive, as well as the total number of positive test results have “started ticking downward” in recent days while other metrics have remained stable.

The positivity rate has fluctuated during the past week from a high of 5.6 percent reported on Monday to Thursday’s low of 3.5 percent for both molecular and antigen testing. The highest combined rate since the summer was 6.2 percent on November 28.

“So the pandemic, even though it is with us and in every corner of the state, does not show signs right now in the recent days or recent week of accelerating in growth,” Shah said Wednesday. “Indeed, if anything, it shows signs of stability and maybe even a bit of contraction. What we are seeing, however, with this increase in new cases, is the result of Maine CDC’s process improvements to make sure that we are able to stay on top of the new cases.”

The six new deaths reported Thursday included three women in their 80s from Oxford County, a man in his 70s from Penobscot County, a woman in her 80s from York County and a woman in her 90s from Aroostook County. The list appears to include the first Maine prison inmate to die because of COVID-19: a man in his 70s serving at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston.

Infections, hospitalizations and deaths have spiked in Maine and across the country since Thanksgiving as the virus spread during family or group gatherings — a dynamic that public health officials fear will be repeated immediately following the current holiday season.

Meanwhile, thousands of frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care homes have been vaccinated for COVID-19 as the first supplies of two vaccines begins flowing into the state. As of Wednesday afternoon, Maine CDC had reported at least 8,001 vaccinations statewide, with that number growing steadily as hospitals and two national pharmacy chains hold vaccine clinics for high-priority individuals.

Maine’s seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 478 on Thursday, compared to 221 four weeks ago and a seven-day rolling average of 76 new cases daily at the end of October.

There were 179 individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, down from 187 reported on Wednesday but still a roughly 10-fold increase in hospitalizations since November 1. There were 41 people being treated in intensive care units — with 112 of the state’s 378 critical care beds still available — and 16 people connected to ventilators.

York County experienced the largest jump on Thursday with 212 additional followed by Cumberland County with 203 cases. The breakdown of new cases reported in other counties is as follows: 74 in Penobscot; 62 in Kennebec; 58 in Androscoggin; 25 in Oxford; 18 in Aroostook; 17 in both Sagadahoc and Lincoln; 15 in Somerset; 13 in Hancock; nine in Waldo; seven in Washington; six in Knox; four in Franklin; and two in Piscataquis.

Gov. Janet Mills said during Wednesday’s briefing that while the arrival of vaccines offers a “desperately needed ray of hope,” the state still faces difficult months ahead as the public health community works to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible.

“The bottom line is: We in Maine are still very much in the throes of this virus, as is every state in the country,” Mills said. “We can, and we must, do better controlling this.”

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