Maine reported 882 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths Wednesday, signaling that the state’s infection rate is rising again because of transmission among unvaccinated people.

And two hospitals serving parts of the state with lower vaccination rates have seen the number of patients with the virus spike in recent days to the highest levels since the pandemic began.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reported on Wednesday that 3,189 children ages 5 to 11 have gotten their first dose, an increase of 1,171 over Tuesday. The age group became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine last week, and schools, public health officials and pediatricians are racing to administer the two-dose regimen to as many schoolchildren as possible by mid-December, before school vacation begins.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said in a media briefing Wednesday that he expects the number of clinics offered to schoolchildren to ramp up in the next two weeks. And the rollout comes as the overall pace of vaccinations in Maine has increased by 40 percent during the past two weeks, to about 7,300 per day, Shah said.

“We are going into pediatric vaccination with the wind at our backs,” Shah said. As more children – and hopefully their parents, as well – become vaccinated, it will “create more epidemiological barriers” to prevent the spread of the virus, he said.

As the state is increasing vaccinations, the pandemic is intensifying in Maine.

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The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 546.9 on Wednesday, compared to 473.4 a week ago and 498.7 a month ago. The peak in Maine so far during the fall surge was about 600 cases per day in early October.

Nationally, the seven-day average of daily new cases has ticked up, from about 71,000 a week ago to about 73,000 currently. But the 73,000 cases remains below an early September peak of about 180,000 cases per day.

Maine has the 18th-highest COVID-19 case count per capita in the United States, with 38.1 cases per 100,000 population, on a seven-day average, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The national average on Wednesday was 23 cases per 100,000 population.

RURAL AREAS VULNERABLE

Shah said that while the state’s vaccination rate holds up well compared to other states, the uneven vaccination rates and the fact that rural Maine was largely spared during previous high points of the pandemic means that there are many pockets of the state where the more contagious delta variant can transmit easily.

The gap between the most-vaccinated county and the least-vaccinated is about 20 percentage points, with 80 percent of the population immunized in Cumberland County, and 60 percent in Piscataquis County.

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“What you get, in effect, is gasoline on fire,” Shah said.

The unvaccinated account for 86 percent of all COVID-19 cases since the vaccines became widely available this spring, and about two-thirds of all hospitalized patients, according to state data.

Among those who have been vaccinated, 99 percent have not contracted COVID-19, Shah said. On a community-wide basis, Cumberland County may be the closest to tamping down transmission. After pediatric vaccinations are completed this winter, the county could close in on 90 percent of its population immunized.

Shah said that the cooler, drier weather also may be contributing to the current surge by aiding transmission of the virus and forcing people to spend more time indoors where the virus also spreads more easily.

Hospitalizations increased statewide on Wednesday, with 225 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 69 in critical care and 29 on ventilators. About two-thirds of those sick enough to be hospitalized have not been fully vaccinated, according hospitals and state officials.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, the parent entity of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, said hospitalizations remain a concern, with hospitals caring for many COVID-19 patients from rural Maine.

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Jarvis said “if we let our guard down” by not vaccinating and refusing to take public health precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, “we are in for a difficult winter.”

CASES SPIKE AT TWO HOSPITALS

Hospitalizations spiked to all-time highs this week at two hospitals: Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and Ellsworth’s Maine Coast Hospital.

At CMMC, the average daily confirmed COVID-19 inpatient count stood at 21.6 for the five days ending Tuesday, the highest level since the pandemic began and up from an average of 19.6 a day last week. The previous record at the 250-bed hospital was 20.4 per day set in early May.

The spike at CMMC is likely due to the lower vaccination rates in the counties the hospital serves – Androscoggin, Oxford, and Franklin – according to Dr. John Alexander, chief medical officer for CMMC’s parent entity, Central Maine Healthcare.

“Between 50 to 70 percent of our inpatients are unvaccinated against COVID-19,” Alexander said. “While our area has a large proportion of unvaccinated residents, many daily activities like shopping and attending school are returning to near normal. It is the very reason why we continue to ask our communities to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and, if you have already been vaccinated, to get the booster once you are eligible.”

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Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth also is experiencing its worst COVID-19 burden of the pandemic with an average of 8.3 inpatients a day for the six days ending Wednesday, up from the previous record of 4.9 per day set last week. Until October, the 166-bed hospital had never experienced a figure higher than 3.6, set during last winter’s surge.

A spokesperson for Northern Light Health, the hospital’s parent entity, said the spike there was believed to be due to low vaccination rates in Hancock County coupled with transmission among migrant workers.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 109,592 cases of COVID-19, and 1,217 deaths.

The pediatric shots have been offered primarily at pharmacies and standalone community clinics coordinated by health care systems like MaineHealth, Northern Light Health and InterMed. But school-based clinics soon will be putting “shots in arms.”

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer, said the health care system is planning dozens of school-based clinics. Mills said most of the clinics didn’t start this week because they needed time for planning and to educate parents on what to expect and answer questions about the vaccine. A Zoom meeting about MaineHealth’s upcoming Nov. 17 clinic at Great Falls Elementary School in Gorham was attended by more than 170 parents.

“It’s going to be a lot bigger next week,” Mills said. “These clinics are the way to get our kids vaccinated most efficiently.”

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Northern Light Health is hosting clinics at 18 school districts, mostly in southern Maine, said Andrew Soucier, a Northern Light spokesman. Penobscot Community Health Center will organize school clinics in the Bangor region, he said.

While most clinics are starting next week, Scarborough schools are hosting a series of clinics for children 5 to 11 this week.

Shah hopes inoculating children 5 to 11 will boost vaccination rates among adults.

“If you’re not yet vaccinated, now is a great time to get vaccinated, perhaps alongside your kids,” he said.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this report.


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