A pharmacist from CVS prepares to administer a first round of coronavirus vaccine Friday to Jerry Lamontagne, 94, a resident of the Enclave of Scarborough, an assisted-living facility. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

State health officials reported 41 additional COVID-19 deaths on Friday, as well as a new daily high of 782 cases.

Six of the deaths occurred over the previous 48 hours and the other 35 individuals died at some point in December and were classified as COVID-19 deaths during follow-up investigations, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, in a briefing with reporters Friday, addressed the high number of deaths reported, calling it a “stark indication of the toll COVID-19 is taking on all of us.”

But Shah also put the number in context. He explained that deaths attributable to COVID-19 are reported to his agency in several different ways – from hospitals, nursing homes and sometimes funeral homes. But that doesn’t capture all COVID-19 deaths.

Shah said that CDC staff regularly reach out to the state’s Division of Data, Research and Vital Statistics to review death certificates. Each is examined to see whether or not COVID-19 could have been a contributing factor.

That’s what happened recently and what led to such a high number reported Friday. He said that there have been lags in confirming or classifying deaths throughout the pandemic, but not in such startling single-day numbers.

All the state’s data, he said, “are snapshots of things that occurred weeks ago.”

But Shah stressed that no matter when an individual dies, the deaths are all tragic.

“I think it’s important to note that there are at least 426 families who have lost a loved one (to COVID-19) in the past nine months,” he said, referring to the total number of deaths to date. “Over 200 people are in the hospital with COVID-19. Over 50 are in critical care. And there are 26 people who cannot breathe on their own. If those numbers don’t convince people of the seriousness and the gravity of COVID-19 … it’s difficult to conceive of what might.”

Since the end of November, Maine’s cumulative death toll has more than doubled, from 194 to 426. And things could get worse in the weeks ahead after the effects of holiday gatherings set in, even as the state works to vaccinate as many people as it can with available doses.

Shah said Friday that Maine continues to move as quickly as possible to get health care workers, and staff and residents of long-term care facilities vaccinated. So far, 43,362 individuals have been given their first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and 3,271 people have received the second dose required. That number changes all the time, though, and Shah explained that there is often a lag of up to three days in getting data from the pharmacies that have been given about one-third of the state’s supply so far.

The state placed its order for 17,175 doses to arrive next week, which is only 100 more than Maine received this week. Shah said he wished it were more. Of that total, 4,875 will be allocated to the pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS, which are conducting the clinics for long-term care facilities.

“Those clinics are starting to hit their stride,” he said.

Even though vaccinations are progressing, Shah said Maine is “still squarely within Phase 1A,” the group of approximately 130,000 people that includes health care workers (not just those directly working with patients) and nursing home staff and residents. He also said there will be challenges when vaccinations start to open up for older Maine residents, including scheduling and transportation, but said the state is working on those issues.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said much of next week’s vaccine allocation will go to support workers at independent health care practices who might not be affiliated with hospitals. That group has been pressuring the state on when its employees might get the vaccine.

Lambrew said the state is still working with partners on setting up sites and coordinating scheduling.

The record number of cases Friday eclipses the previous high of 748 set on Dec. 23. New cases were reported in every county, led by York County, with 282, and Cumberland County, with 260. The seven-day average of daily new cases in Maine was 501.7 on Friday, compared to 479.1 a week ago and 320.9 a month ago. The total number of cases since the pandemic began now stands at 28,407.

The number of hospitalizations rose to 205, which is three more than the record set Thursday. Of those, 56 were in critical care, also a new high, and 26 were on a ventilator. Since March, 1,150 individuals have been hospitalized at some point. That means one in six people who have ever been hospitalized in Maine for COVID-19 are in the hospital right now.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said Friday that although hospitals in Maine are still able to treat all patients who come in, things have been “extraordinarily busy.”

“Not only are there record numbers of patients hospitalized, but the acuity is very high,” she said. “People don’t realize how much care the most critically ill patients need.”

Mills said Maine hospitals are “not Los Angeles,” referring to hospitals in that city that have had to turn people away, “But it’s certainly a stressful time.”

“There is light at the end of the tunnel (with vaccines), but it’s still a glimmer,” she said.

On Thursday, the United States went over 4,000 daily deaths for the first time in the pandemic, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The seven-day average for deaths is now more than 2,750, also a record. There were more than 132,000 COVID-19 patients in the hospital nationwide on Thursday.

Despite the grim numbers, Maine still has the third-fewest deaths per capita in the nation, with only Vermont and Hawaii lower, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Maine had 286 deaths per 1 million population, compared to 211 per 1 million in Hawaii. New Jersey and New York, where the pandemic raged last spring, both have had more than 2,000 deaths per 1 million, worst in the nation.

Although treatments have improved for COVID-19 since the spring and patients are more likely to survive, the disease is still about five times deadlier than the flu for hospitalized patients, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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