The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators in Maine hospitals reached a record high Wednesday as positive cases continue to rise and overwhelm the state’s ability to keep up with the reports of new infections.

Maine remains in the throes of the nationwide coronavirus surge as the delta variant sweeps through the unvaccinated population. And there is no slowdown in sight, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Wednesday.

“We are anticipating seeing continued sustained high numbers of cases for at least the coming week; perhaps even longer than that,” Shah said.

Forty-two people in Maine hospitals were breathing with the assistance of ventilators on Wednesday, according to data from the Maine CDC. The previous high of 40 people was reported on Monday.

Patients using ventilators are the most severely ill among those filling Maine’s intensive care units. Nearly all patients receiving critical care, and 70 to 75 percent of all hospitalized patients, have not been vaccinated, the Maine CDC has said.

The state also reported seven new deaths, bringing the total number of people who have died over the course of the pandemic to 976.

The Maine CDC reported another 778 cases of coronavirus Wednesday, among the highest numbers reported during the pandemic. But some of those cases were submitted to the state as much as 10 days ago and had not been processed because of a backlog of reports that CDC staff is struggling to process.

Because the agency has been receiving more positive reports than staff can verify and report out each day, case counts over the past two weeks have reflected how many are being processed and not how many people are actually testing positive in the previous 24 hours. Processing includes eliminating duplicate reports so positive cases aren’t counted twice.

Last week, the CDC said it had redeployed staff, assigned Maine National Guard members to the case processing team, and hired and begun training new staff to work through the backlog and try to keep up with the surge of cases and tests. On Wednesday, Shah said the state has added about three dozen people to the processing staff, which now totals 145 people. More people continue to be hired and trained, he said.

Still, the state’s backlog of positive tests totaled 2,900 on Wednesday, up from 2,441 a week ago, he said.

State officials anticipated a surge from the delta variant and did staff up in preparation, Shah said. But he also admitted Wednesday that he and others did not expect the numbers to rise as high as they have.

“We didn’t think the onslaught of cases that we would be getting would be where we are now.”

Last week, Shah said the CDC was overwhelmed with 420 to 440 positive test reports a day. He said Wednesday that the state received 400 to 450 tests a day during the surge last January.

“Today alone we had 620,” Shah said Wednesday. “This is a peak upon a peak, even greater than we thought we were going to get.”

Maine isn’t the only state to struggle with the flood of test reports during the delta variant surge, or during a similar spike last winter.

This month, Ohio added 1,000 cases to its count in one day after clearing a backlog of cases from the previous week, according to news reports. Other states that have dealt with backlogs include Washington, Florida, Iowa, Alaska and Oregon, among others.

The seven-day average of daily new cases in Maine is 450.6, which is up from 359 one week ago and 173.7 one month ago.

The burden of the disease is shifting toward younger people as children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccines and as students return to school and more congregate settings.

Shah said Wednesday that it’s too early in the school year to know if a rise in cases among young people is being fueled by cases spreading in schools or by infections that kids are carrying before they get to school.

“Our expectation is we will continue to see schools being a safe place,” he said.

Shah also said that, while positive cases are rising among young people who aren’t yet vaccinated, serious illness among children remains extremely uncommon. Of the 192 people hospitalized in Maine on Wednesday, two were children and neither was in intensive care, Shah said.

Twenty-nine percent of the cases reported Wednesday were in people under 20 and another 16 percent were among people in their 20s. People in their 70s and older, who represent the most vaccinated population in Maine, made up just 6 percent of the new cases Wednesday.

The most recent numbers classify every county in Maine with the exception of Sagadahoc as having high transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calculates transmission levels based on new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days or test positivity rates, whichever is higher. Waldo County currently has the worst transmission levels. The 223 cases reported there in the last seven days mean the county has a case rate of 561.5 per 100,000 people. Sagadahoc County, where transmission is substantial, has a seven-day case rate of 97.6 per 100,000 people.

Maine’s education commissioner told lawmakers Tuesday that schools are feeling overwhelmed by the number of cases they’re seeing in the first few weeks, but the state continues to believe in-person learning can occur safely as long as health protocols such as universal indoor masking and vaccines for all who are eligible are in place.

“Unfortunately, we had this very extraordinary, unanticipated spike in COVID collide with the very opening days of school,” Pender Makin said. “I think you’re going to see a readjustment and people are going to settle into realizing we are living with COVID for a while. It’s not a thing where we’re going to walk away and say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ We need to learn how to reasonably live in an environment where a pretty dangerous, often deadly disease is out there in our midst.”

Maine continues to have high rates of hospitalizations. On Wednesday, 192 people in Maine were hospitalized, including 70 in critical care and 42 on ventilators. There are 194 remaining available ventilators out of a total of 294 in the state and 55 remaining critical care beds out of 332 total.

Nearly all patients in critical care, and 70 to 75 percent of all hospitalized patients, have not been vaccinated, the Maine CDC has said.

Statewide, 64 percent of people are fully vaccinated. That number rises to 72.9 percent for the 12-and-over population eligible for vaccines.

Nationally, the summer surge appears to be leveling off although coronavirus deaths are continuing to rise. The seven-day average of daily new cases around the country was 152,177 on Wednesday, which is down slightly from an average of 152,393 one week ago, according to the New York Times.

Maine’s infection rate rose to 33 cases per 100,000 residents, second highest in New England after Rhode Island. But the state is still below the national infection rate of 46 cases per 100,000 people because of even more severe surges in many southern states.

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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