Melanie Gordon motions for a person waiting in line to approach her station at the Promerica COVID-19 testing site at the Portland International Jetport on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The recent uptick in new COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks has been driven in part by younger Mainers who won’t be eligible for vaccines for several weeks.

People in their 20s now make up the highest percentage of positive cases, 18.1 percent, followed closely by those under 20, who account for 15.7 percent of all cases, according to data tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Residents over 70 make up just 11.7 percent of cases but account for 85 percent of all deaths.

The age shift has occurred gradually over several months. Last May, for instance, people in their 20s made up just 11 percent of cases and those under 20 accounted for only 2.3 percent. Those over 70, by comparison, made up 25.9 percent. By mid-July, 16 percent of cases were among people in their 20s and 9.4 percent where among those younger than 20, while cases among the over-70 population decreased to 16.4 percent.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health – the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Mercy Hospital in Portland and others – said there are certainly signs pointing to another possible wave of COVID-19 cases and that young people are most likely to facilitate that spike.

Jarvis said although young people might not be at high risk of serious illness or death from the virus, they can still pass it to others, often unknowingly if they don’t have symptoms. That’s a risk because there are still many older or at-risk individuals who have yet to be vaccinated.

“We need to be protective of all those people,” he said. “If young people are infected and then go visit (others), that’s just one step away from an outbreak occurring.”

The biggest risk, Jarvis said, is young people traveling out of state who might bring one of the more contagious COVID-19 variants back with them. Some states Mainers might visit – Florida, in particular – don’t have the same restrictions as Maine.

State health officials reported 203 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, but no additional deaths. It was the third time in the last six days that cases have eclipsed 200. The seven-day daily case average increased to 193, up from 170 two weeks ago and from 142 this time last month. Cases peaked at an average of more than 600 daily in mid-January after a post-holiday surge, then dropped steadily for weeks before leveling off and now increasing again.

In all there now have been 47,591 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 725 deaths since the pandemic reached Maine a little over one year ago. Across the United States, there have been nearly 30 million cases and more than 535,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Both totals dwarf those of any other country.

Hospitalizations, which had been dropping since peaking above 200 in mid-January, also have started to climb again in Maine. As of Wednesday, 84 people were in Maine hospitals with COVID-19, including 25 in critical care and eight on ventilators. The total had dipped as low as 62 on March 1 but has been rising steadily since. In all, 1,612 Maine people have been hospitalized at some point.

Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday extended the state of civil emergency through April 15, something most other states have done, in part because it allows them to draw certain federal funds.

“We are in a race between vaccinations and variants,” Mills said in a statement. “And with more than a quarter of all Maine people now having received their first dose, we are making good progress. But we have got to keep our foot on the gas to get more people vaccinated, to keep people alive and healthy, and to get us back to normal sooner. The summer is fast approaching and the finish line is on the horizon.”

As of Wednesday morning, the state had administered 524,214 shots. Of those, 330,123 were first doses, which represents 24.6 percent of the population, and 194,091 individuals, or 14.4 percent, have been fully vaccinated. Nearly 77 percent of Mainers over 70 and 43 percent of those 60-69 have gotten their first dose.

Maine ranks eighth among states in the percentage of population fully vaccinated, according to a state-by-state tracker by Bloomberg News.

The U.S. CDC released on Wednesday its vaccine allotments for states next week and Maine is eligible to receive a total of 35,190 doses, which would be 1,170 more doses than this week. That number does not include doses that go directly to pharmacies as part of a partnership with the federal government. Those numbers won’t be finalized until later this week. Of the doses expected to arrive in Maine next week, 19,890 are from Pfizer, 13,700 are from Moderna and 1,600 are the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The state continues to prioritize residents over 60, as well as teachers, school staff and child care staff. Those 50-59 are set to become eligible on April 1 and all adult Mainers will be able to schedule an appointment by May 1.

Health officials also announced Tuesday that residents of Maine’s Department of Corrections facilities who are over 60 – about 150 inmates – will be eligible for vaccinations starting next week. The state previously had not said when inmates would be vaccinated. Maine’s two largest outbreaks at single sites have been at a state prison and a county jail and, recently, seven inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren have tested positive for the virus.

The Department of Corrections said in a release Wednesday that it is awaiting results of tests on two additional inmates it believes have COVID-19. A positive test returned by a staff member has been determined to not be connected to the prison outbreak, the department said.

Additional mass vaccination sites opened this week in Auburn and Dover-Foxcroft, adding to a growing list of options. The state now has more than 200 sites across the state, which includes dozens of retail pharmacies that are offering shots through a partnership with the federal government and are currently targeting teachers.

Although Maine is expected to receive only a modest increase in vaccine doses for next week, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Tuesday that the volume is projected to increase dramatically by late March or early April.

He also said the state is working with vaccinators to determine which have the capacity to increase staff or to keep clinics open for longer hours once more doses arrive.

Health experts across the country are hoping vaccinations accelerate to the point where they keep another case spike at bay. The emergence of COVID-19 variants, which have spread in other countries and have arrived here as well, are problematic.

“It’s going to be a close call,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health told CNN on Tuesday. “We are vaccinating really well, that’s the good news. These variants are spreading pretty quickly across the country, that’s the bad news.”

“To me, I think the vaccine should win out,” he added. “Here’s the big but: What Texas, Mississippi, other states are doing to relax and get rid of the mask orders and kind of act like everything is back to normal, that is definitely coming down on the side of the variants.”

Maine Gov. Janet Mills last week announced that she was loosening some pandemic restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings but is keeping the mask mandate and other measures.

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