State health officials reported 754 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, continuing a persistent trend of heavy virus transmission that shows no signs of subsiding as winter approaches.

While the pace of vaccinations has increased, new infections and hospitalizations continue to be concentrated in areas with lower vaccination rates.

“Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change in the near term,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Wednesday. “Maine CDC expects that those case counts will remain high. … For how long they remain high is fundamentally up to all of us.”

Three additional deaths were reported Thursday as well.

With Thursday’s cases and the 882 new cases from Wednesday, the seven-day daily average rose to 553 cases, which is up from 462 cases two weeks ago and 368 cases on average this time last month. Since the pandemic reached Maine nearly 19 months ago, there have been 110,346 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,220 deaths, according to CDC data. Over the last month, 145 new deaths from COVID-19 have been added, or nearly five per day.

Cases had been trending downward across the country for weeks – some of it attributable to lower testing volume – but things have leveled off more recently. The seven-day average stood at 74,584 on Wednesday, which is slightly higher than two weeks earlier, according to the U.S. CDC. Deaths are still averaging more than 1,000 per day across the country and more than 750,000 Americans have died during the pandemic so far.

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Since the pandemic began, Maine has had fewer cases and deaths per capita than nearly every other state. In recent weeks, however, Maine’s infection rate has been well above the national average.

Maine’s seven-day case rate of 332 per 100,000 people is the 10th highest in the county, just behind New Hampshire, and more than double the national case rate of 157 per 100,000 people.

As of Wednesday, the state’s seven-day positive test rate was 6.9 percent, up from 5.5 percent two weeks, or one incubation period, ago. Testing volume has gone up, too. The average testing volume is about 555 tests per 100,000 people, an increase of 11 percent in two weeks.

“That’s on top of a 20 percent increase two weeks prior to that,” Shah said.

Shah warned that the colder weather could be playing an increased role for two reasons.

“The first is that more folks gather indoors when it’s chillier,” he said. “The other is that the cooler, drier air makes it easier for the virus to spread and enter the body.”

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Last year, Maine and many other states saw massive case spikes around Thanksgiving and continuing through the holiday season and the new year. The major difference, though, is that things started from a much lower place this time last year. The average number of cases in Maine this time last year was 161, compared to 553 on Thursday.

Another factor is the delta variant. The highly transmissible form of the coronavirus wasn’t circulating in Maine during the holidays last year.

HOSPITALIZATIONS REMAIN HIGH

Hospitalizations also remain at a sustained high level and are even approaching a new pandemic high.

As of Thursday, 233 individuals were in the hospital with COVID-19 in Maine, including 73 in critical care and 31 on ventilators. After falling as low as 152 on Oct. 7, hospitalizations have been over 200 for 21 consecutive days. Thursday’s total is just two shy of the high set on Sept. 25. The majority of the people who are hospitalized are unvaccinated, and many of the remaining patients have other serious health conditions that made them vulnerable to the virus.

MaineGeneral in Augusta has experienced the most demanding week of the pandemic, with a daily average of 19.4 confirmed COVID-19  inpatients for the week ending Thursday, up from 13.7 a day last week. The previous record of 18.3 was set the last week of September. Wednesday’s COVID-19 inpatient count of 22 was the highest the hospital has recorded.

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Dr. Steve Diaz, chief medical officer of MaineGeneral Health, said the increase in patients coincides with a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in Kennebec County. The state reported 171 new cases in Kennebec County on Wednesday, the highest single-day increase since the pandemic began.

“We’d encourage people in Kennebec County to continue masking when in public spaces, staying home when sick and getting vaccinated,” he said.

On Wednesday, officials at Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center – which also is caring for record numbers of COVID-19 inpatients – said their spike was driven by low vaccination rates in the counties they primarily serve: Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin.

The average number of people hospitalized in the U.S. has been about 40,000 over the last week, which is down from more than 55,000 on average this time last month.

VACCINATION RATE RISING

The rate of vaccination in Maine, meanwhile, has increased to 7,264 doses per day, which is up 40 percent over two weeks and this week has included newly eligible 5- to 11-year-olds. It comes at a good time, too, since children under 12 have accounted for 21 percent of all new cases in the last two weeks, Shah said.

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Overall, Maine has administered 948,020 final doses, which accounts for 70.5 percent of all Mainers. As of Thursday, 5,213 elementary school-age children had gotten their first dose, with 42 percent coming in Cumberland County, the state’s most vaccinated county.

Geographic disparities in vaccination rates have persisted for months, with rural and more conservative counties getting shots at a far lower rate. Additionally, younger adults have been less likely as a whole to get their vaccines than those over 50, especially in rural areas.

Shah explained that those geographic disparities are playing a big role in current case trends.

“For epidemiological purposes what matters is simply not the overall percentage of the state that’s vaccinated, it’s where those folks are,” he said. “That’s because vaccinated individuals in epidemiological terms present a barrier for the virus, a blockage that limits the virus’ room and ability to run.”

Shah said if the state’s vaccination rate was uniform across the state, “our daily COVID case rates might very well be much lower.”

Instead, pockets of unvaccinated people are keeping the virus alive. In many cases, Shah said, these areas have lower vaccine immunity and lower natural immunity because until now they have been “insulated” from COVID.

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“But not anymore,” he said. “The delta variant has blown through that insulation.”

Shah said that although the picture is bleak and could get worse, Mainers still have tools to keep themselves safe.

“None of this is to undermine or undercut the fact that the vaccines and vaccinations continue to work,” Shah said. “If you’re vaccinated, your risk of getting severely ill from COVID or ending up in a hospital or dying remain low.”

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this report.

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