State health officials reported 104 additional cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday along with three more deaths among Mainers who have contracted the viral disease.

The number of new coronavirus infections in Maine continues it’s downward trajectory, with the seven-day average falling from 234 new cases on Feb. 10 to a daily average of 145 new cases for the week ending on Wednesday. That is four times lower than the peak, seven-day average of 625 new cases daily reported on Jan. 15.

The total number of vaccine doses administered in Maine stood at 255,849 as of Wednesday morning, an increase of roughly 6,000 doses since Tuesday. More than 13 percent of Maine’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine as state health officials target residents age 70 or older.

The three additional deaths reported Wednesday raised the total in Maine since last March to 654. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said all three individuals – two women and one man – were residents of Cumberland County who were in their 80s.

Despite improving numbers, Maine Gov. Janet Mills extended the state’s civil state of emergency declaration for another 30 days on Wednesday, consistent with most other states. Mills has used the state’s emergency declaration law over the past year to impose public health requirements, such as restrictions on businesses, size limits on gatherings, testing or quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors, and face mask mandates for individuals in public settings.

“Maine continues to see improved public health metrics as we turn the corner on recent surges,” Mills said in a statement. “It’s important still, as we confront a variant of the virus and as we work around the clock to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, that Maine people continue to be careful. I urge all Maine people to take the steps we know that keep everybody safe – wear your mask, wash your hands, watch your distance and avoid gatherings. These things will keep us all safe during the pandemic and give us a better shot of getting back to normal sooner.”

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Maine and states across the country have seen a precipitous decline in new cases in recent weeks.

In early- to mid-January, Maine experienced multiple days where new cases topped 700 or 800 cases, although Wednesday’s seven-day average of 145 is still twice as high as in early November and seven times higher than in August. There were 91 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Wednesday – down from a peak of 207 hospitalizations on Jan. 13 – with 24 of those 91 in critical care and nine connected to ventilators.

But state and national public health officials are concerned about potential surges caused by more easily transmissible strains of the virus.

Lyndi Brechbuhler, a nurse who works at the Peaks Island health clinic, fills a syringe with Moderna COVID-19 vaccine prior to the start of an immunization clinic at Brackett Memorial Church on Peaks Island on Sunday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On Tuesday, the Maine CDC reported a second infection with a variant first identified in the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7, which research shows is even more transmissible. Nationwide, there were 1,277 cases of the U.K. variant across 42 states as of Tuesday as well as more than 20 cases of other variants first documented in South Africa and Brazil.

“There are reasons for optimism on the horizon,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Tuesday as he noted declines in both hospitalizations and deaths along with increases in vaccinations. “The reason why my optimism is not unqualified is because of these new variants.”

VACCINATIONS EXPANDING

Maine’s vaccination campaign, meanwhile, continues to target older Mainers who face the highest risk of serious complications or death if they contract COVID-19.

To date, a total of 255,849 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Maine. That figure include 180,465 first doses as well as 75,384 second doses, according to the latest figures from the Maine CDC.

Maine is currently in Phase 1B of its vaccination plan focused on individuals age 70 and above and is expected to begin offering vaccines to 65- to 69-year-olds next month. More than 44 percent of the roughly 193,000 Mainers within that 70+ age group had received at least one dose as of Wednesday, with nearly 7 percent fully vaccinated.

A small number of Mainers between the ages of 65 and 69 could find themselves eligible, at the last second, for shots under new guidance from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, however.

Doses must be administered within six hours of opening the vial in order to avoid spoiling the vaccine. On Tuesday, DHHS released a new “efficient and full use policy” for COVID vaccines that would allow clinic operators to offer “a small fraction of doses available at the end of a clinic” to individuals not signed up for inoculation that day.

First priority must be given to individuals age 70 or older who are on a waiting list or are scheduled for appointments on a later date. But if no one in that age group is immediately available, doses can be offered to individuals between the ages of 65 and 69 or, lastly, to vaccination clinic staff or volunteers “in oldest age order.”

DHHS stated that exceptions to this policy will be considered “for unbridged islands, remote locations, and other settings where the provision of vaccines to eligible individuals would be infeasible without broader eligibility.”

“Requests for such exceptions will be rare and must be approved in advance,” reads the guidance.

On Tuesday, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey warned that his office would consider legal and administrative action against health care providers that administer shots to ineligible individuals. The rebuke was in response to several high-profile violations of those guidelines, including MaineGeneral offering vaccines to donors as part of a trial-run clinic and MaineHealth vaccinating out-of-state contractors who were hired to fight a unionization campaign among nurses.

Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 incident command, said extra doses has not been an issue at their clinics throughout the state. Northern Light’s mass-vaccination clinic at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center is delivering more than 1,000 shots a day and, with the recent opening of a second “pod” within the arena center, could administer up to 5,000 daily once supplies allow.

Jarvis said Northern Light only makes appointments for the number of doses it has on hand for any given day. And unlike some other health care providers, Northern Light is not currently maintaining a wait list of eligible individuals.

“We do not anticipate that we will have additional vaccine available at the end of the day,” Jarvis said.

MORE DOSES COMING

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced plans to allocate an additional 2 million-plus vaccine doses to states – increasing total distributions to 13.5 million – as well as an additional million doses sent to retail pharmacy chains carrying out inoculations. It was not clear how many additional doses would be earmarked for Maine, however.

Maine anticipated receiving 22,475 initial doses combined of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines this week. Second doses are tracked and sent separately based on when they are scheduled to be administered. Additionally, 24 pharmacies located in Walmart or Sam’s Club stores in Maine expected to receive 4,800 vaccine doses this week as part of clinics that launched last week.

According to vaccine tracking by Bloomberg, Maine had the nation’s sixth-highest vaccination rate with 13.2 percent of residents receiving at least one shot, slightly above the national average of 12.2 percent. Maine ranked 11th behind nine states and the District of Columbia in terms of the slice of the total population (5.4 percent) have received both vaccine doses.

Vaccine hesitancy, or a reluctance to be inoculated, is a top concern nationwide because experts estimate it might require 70 percent or higher of the population to be immunized against COVID-19 to stop uncontrolled spread via “herd immunity.”

Recent surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that Mainers are more likely to want the COVID vaccine than their counterparts in most states. Roughly 62 percent of survey respondents said they would “definitely’ receive a vaccine once it is available to them, which was among the Top 10 nationally but was lower than all other New England states except Connecticut. The national average was 54.8 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

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