More than 70 Maine schools have now had COVID-19 outbreaks in the first weeks of classes as an end-of-summer surge continues to result in high caseloads and near-record hospitalizations statewide.

Maine reported 2,080 cases of COVID-19 and 72 outbreaks in schools in the past 30 days, according to the weekly update posted Thursday by the Department of Education. Those numbers are up from 52 outbreaks and 1,390 cases one week ago.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reported on Thursday a total of 716 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths.

The surge that began at the height of summer is now pushing into fall, with the state setting new records for hospitalized patients on a near-daily basis as the delta variant continues to spread, particularly among the unvaccinated. Although slightly lower than Wednesday’s record-highs, the 221 hospitalizations and 83 critical care patients reported Thursday were both higher than during the previous peak in January.

The school cases are forcing hundreds, if not thousands, of students to quarantine at home, often without the option of attending classes remotely.

Some of the largest school outbreaks include Hermon High School, with 37 cases; Caribou High School, with 35 cases; and St. Brigid School, a private Catholic school in Portland, with 30 cases.

Sanford’s high school and middle school both have outbreaks with a total of 33 cases. Lake Region High School in Naples and Windham High School both have outbreaks with 12 cases each. Freeport and Gorham high schools have active outbreaks with six cases each.

There are about 710 schools, 172,000 students and 47,000 school staff in Maine. Despite higher case numbers than last school year, state and local officials have said in-person learning can continue as long as schools follow the proper health and safety protocols such as requiring masks indoors and encouraging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated.

While health care workers statewide will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or else lose their jobs next month, there is no similar vaccination mandate for teachers or staff in Maine for schools. Likewise, decisions about whether to require masks in schools is a local decision, although Gov. Janet Mills said she was encouraged by the growing number of school districts adopting masking requirements.

Mills said she fully expects people “to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because it’s a mandate.”

“If you’re taking care of Maine kids and you’re choosing not to get vaccinated, you’re saying that you are more important than the children in your care,” Mills said during a news briefing on COVID-19 Wednesday. “If you’re a school board member, administrator or school district not requiring universal masking, you’re endangering the children, the staff, the teachers and everyone who enters that school.”

Every county in Maine now has “high” rates of community transmission based on federal criteria and Penobscot County has emerged as the latest hotspot, with 148 new cases reported Thursday.

Highlighting the ongoing spread of the virus in rural Maine, Piscataquis County has the highest case rate for the past week followed by Penobscot and Somerset counties. Piscataquis and Somerset counties also have the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with less than 55 percent of residents fully inoculated against COVID.

Even so, state officials are seeing “small signs of optimism” that this latest surge – which rivals the worst of the 18-month-long pandemic – could be easing in Maine as it has in other states.

“We are starting to see a slight but perceptible decrease in positivity every day,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday, referring to the rate of COVID-19 tests that come back as positive. Maine’s seven-day positivity rate for molecular tests stood at 4.85 on Thursday compared to 6.06 percent last week.

Thursday’s 716 new cases is up from the 614 cases reported on Wednesday and increases the seven-day daily case average to 467. That compares to an average of 456 new cases daily for the week ending on Sept. 16 and is more than 20 times higher than the 20 new cases per day being reported before this latest surge in early July.

The two additional deaths reported Thursday – residents of Penobscot and Hancock counties who were in the 40s and 50s – increased Maine’s total COVID-related deaths to 1,009. Just two days earlier, Maine surpassed the 1,000-death milestone for the pandemic.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 85,872 confirmed or probable cases of the viral disease since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020.

On Wednesday, Maine set new records with 226 hospitalizations statewide, 88 patients in critical care and 40 connected to ventilators to assist with breathing. Those figures fell somewhat on Thursday – to 221 hospitalizations, 83 ICU patients and 37 on ventilators – but hospitals around the state continue to battle a bottleneck for bed space caused by severely ill COVID patients and the lack of nursing home or rehab beds for patients ready for discharge caused by a staffing crisis.

Maine’s virus prevalence is now much closer to the national average, at 36 cases per 100,000 residents on an average day, compared to 40 nationally, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Maine has the second highest infection rate in the northeast behind Pennsylvania, which is reporting a daily average of 37 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

On the vaccination front, 73.1 percent of all eligible Mainers had received either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-shot vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. That figure drops to 64.4 percent when including children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination.

The Maine CDC on Thursday started breaking out the number of “booster” shots administered to people who previously received the doses sufficient for full vaccination. As of Thursday, 10,210 additional or booster doses had been administered in Maine. Most of those shots would previously have been included as “final doses” on the Maine CDC’s vaccination data dashboard webpage, and breaking them into a separate category caused a one-day decrease in the number final doses reported.

Maine continues to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, as well as among the lowest COVID-19 case and death rates.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized third shots, or “booster shots,” of the Pfizer vaccine for people 65 or older as well as individuals with high-risk jobs or who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of serious illness or death. People with higher risk of exposure include health care workers, teachers, grocery store workers and people living in homeless shelters or prisons, the FDA said.

Federal regulators had previously authorized third shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for people with weakened immune systems, including cancer patients and organ transplant recipients.

Though health experts are far from united on the need for and efficacy of booster shots across the broader population, the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Thursday said boosters of the Pfizer vaccine should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents and those 50 to 64 who have risky underlying health problems. The extra dose would be given once they are at least six months past their last vaccine.

In a Twitter message, Shah said that there was “more to come on what this means for you here in Maine.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.