More and more signs are emerging that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly through Maine, especially among unvaccinated populations, contributing to troubling spikes in hospitalizations and deaths as a holiday week approaches.

The state set yet another pandemic high with 275 hospitalizations on Tuesday and also set a record for the rate of tests that are coming back positive, 8.5 percent on average over the last seven days. Thirteen additional deaths were reported Tuesday as well.

Even though Maine’s vaccination rate is one of the best in the country, roughly 400,000 residents still are not fully vaccinated, and many are clustered in rural and inland parts of the state. That’s where the virus is spreading most and where hospitals are seeing the biggest surges of patients.

State health officials reported 946 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday for the three-day period from Saturday through Monday. With the new batch, the seven-day average now sits at 483, compared with 467 two weeks ago, according to data tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Last Tuesday, 983 cases were reported for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

While new case reports have been hovering at high levels for weeks, other metrics suggest things are getting even worse. The state’s positivity rate, or the percentage of all tests that come back positive, is 3 percentage points higher than it was this time last month, indicating higher rates of transmission. More tests are being processed, too – 584 per 100,000 people on average per day compared with 499 per 100,000 two weeks ago.

Since March 2020, there have been 112,090 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 1,243 deaths in Maine. Roughly half of all deaths thus far have been residents 80 or older, but younger people can still be at risk. Among people in their 50s, 94 have died, and among those in their 40s, 26 have died.

Of the 13 deaths reported Tuesday, 11 were men. There have been at least 160 deaths just in the last month, and Maine still has the third-lowest per capita rate since the start of the pandemic.

Cases have started to climb again nationally as colder weather has forced more people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. According to the U.S. CDC, the seven-day case average is 80,823, which is up 13 percent from 71,619 cases on average two weeks ago. COVID-19 deaths are still averaging about 1,000 each day across the country, and more than 760,000 Americans have died since the pandemic started.

Over the last seven days, Maine’s case rate has been 251 per 100,000 people, which ranks 23rd among all states and is higher than the national rate of 170 per 100,000 people. Nearby New Hampshire and Vermont, at 390 and 356 cases per 100,000, respectively, are seeing some of the highest numbers anywhere, although some of that has to do with testing. Vermont’s testing rate is the highest in the country, 39,266 tests per 100,000 people, or roughly three times Maine’s rate, which ranks 14th.

Many southern and midwestern states, including Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama, are conducting fewer than 5,000 tests for every 100,000 people and their transmission rates have been lower.

The number of daily hospitalizations has increased by 30 percent just in the past week in Maine, adding to an already taxing situation for health care centers that are hampered by staffing shortages. Tuesday’s total of 275 set a record for third consecutive day. Of those, 74 are in critical care and 34 are on ventilators. One month ago, there were 106 fewer COVID patients in Maine hospitals.

Hospitalizations, especially those requiring critical care or ventilators, have overwhelmingly been unvaccinated individuals, and numerous studies have shown that unvaccinated people are far more likely to end up in the hospital if they contract COVID-19.

NEARY 71 PERCENT VACCINATED

Vaccinations, meanwhile, continue at an accelerated pace this week, aided by an increasing number of booster shots and first doses for children 5-11. The seven-day average number of doses is 8,846, according to the Maine CDC, which is an increase of 14 percent from two weeks earlier.

Overall, Maine has administered 951,695 final doses of the Pfizer of Moderna vaccines, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That represents 70.8 percent of all Mainers. According to a state-by-state tracker from Bloomberg News, Maine ranks third among all states in vaccination rates, behind only Vermont and Rhode Island. The top eight states are all on the East Coast.

In addition, Maine has now administered 171,185 booster shots, and 12,366 elementary school age children have gotten the first dose, representing 13 percent of all children in that group. As with other age categories, though, there is wide geographic disparity in vaccinations of children. In Cumberland County, for instance, 21.5 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds have gotten their first shots. In Franklin County, the rate is just 2.2 percent.

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