A testing technician for Promerica Health awaits the next patient Tuesday at the mobile testing facility at the Portland International Jetport. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine reported 12 more deaths and 255 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, underscoring the gravity of the runaway pandemic.

The previous one-day high for new cases was 247, on Nov. 12. The acceleration of deaths and cases comes during Thanksgiving week, when people traditionally travel and visit family and friends. This year, public health experts are warning that Thanksgiving gatherings could deepen the pandemic and lead to exponential growth in cases and deaths.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland and an infectious disease expert, said the large number of deaths is sad but not shocking. A few weeks after cases spike, hospitalizations and deaths follow.

“We saw what happened earlier this year in New York, then in the Deep South, then in the Midwest this fall,” Blaisdell said. “We aren’t any different in Maine. We are just late to this game.”

Blaisdell said Maine could still get much worse, but with vaccines close to being approved and more widely available in 2021, there’s still a chance Maine could “curb the spike” and avoid many deaths and overwhelmed hospitals.

“We have some very dark challenges ahead. I would urge folks to hold on for just a few more months, stay home just a few more months,” Blaisdell said.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the 12 deaths were confirmed by the agency Tuesday but did not all occur on one day.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said two deaths occurred in the previous 24 hours, and the remaining deaths happened in the previous two to three days. Shah said the lag in reporting deaths is not unusual.

“This happens every single time,” Shah said. “It gets reported to us on different schedules and by different entities. The lag in reporting (deaths) is from 12 hours to a couple days.”

Shah cited the day’s case and death numbers on Twitter, adding, “These are not the kinds of records we want to be setting.”

“The choices that we, as a state, make this week will affect whether record-setting days like today remain a rarity or become the norm,” Shah said.

Maine’s overall death rate from COVID-19 is second-lowest in the nation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, at 132 per 1 million population, compared to a national average of 783 per 1 million. Only Vermont at 101 per 1 million has a lower fatality rate.

States where COVID-19 surges occurred early in the pandemic, such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have the worst fatality rates. In New Jersey, which has the worst COVID-19 mortality rates in the nation, 1,887 have died per 1 million population.

States that have seen fall surges worse than Maine also have much higher mortality rates, such as North Dakota and South Dakota, which have mortality rates of 1,118 and 926 per 1 million population, respectively.

Of the deaths reported Tuesday, five were in Somerset County, four were in York County, and single deaths were recorded in Franklin, Androscoggin and Washington counties.

The deaths include a woman in her 90s from Androscoggin County; a man in his 80s from Franklin County; four men from Somerset County, two in their 70s, one in his 80s and one in his 60s; a woman in her 70s from Somerset County; a man in his 60s from Washington County; two men from York County, one in his 80s and one in his 70s; two women from York County, both in their 70s.

“Maine CDC expresses condolences to the families and loved ones who will be grieving the loss of these Maine people during the holidays,” Long said in a statement. “Please consider the impact your actions can have on the safety and well-being of others.”

Gov. Janet Mills extended the state of civil emergency on Tuesday through Dec. 23. It was the ninth time Mills extended the declaration, which remains in effect for 30 days and enables the state to draw down federal resources and use other measures to fight the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, 10,799 Maine people have had COVID-19, and 189 have died. On Monday, Shah said that new cases have been outpacing the agency’s contact-tracing capacity so it had to curtail some of its contact-tracing follow-up efforts.

People who have confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 still will be traced and called, but Maine CDC employees will no longer do periodic check-ins and follow-up calls, in that way saving resources for outbreak investigations and to keep up with the volume of cases.

The Maine Department of Education announced Tuesday it was hiring at least 21 nurses, many of them retired school nurses, to conduct contact tracing at Maine schools.

The new workforce will supplement the 150 Maine CDC workers who are doing contact tracing.

“This program will provide Maine schools with specialized supports throughout the contact-tracing process,” said Pender Makin, Maine’s education commissioner. “It will support the work of school nurses and other school staff as they communicate with and monitor close contacts of positive cases. The overarching goal is to support our schools and keep our children actively engaged in learning while mitigating the spread and effects of this pandemic.”

About half of close contacts of positive cases of COVID-19 were associated with schools, according to an education department news release. The transmission rate of COVID-19 in schools is slightly less than one half of the overall transmission rate in the community.

Overall, the seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 207.9 on Tuesday, up from 188.7 a week ago and 59 a month ago.

COVID-19 hospitalizations reached 105 on Tuesday – up from a record 103 the previous day – while the number of people in critical care beds dropped to 43 from the previous day’s 45. By comparison, Maine had just 13 hospitalizations among people with COVID-19 and five individuals in intensive care four weeks ago on Oct. 26.

Hospitalizations have surged across Maine in recent weeks, particularly in central, western and eastern Maine. The 105 hospitalizations is more than 50 percent higher than the worst day during the spring surge of the virus. And while there were 93 available ICU beds statewide Monday, there are concerns that the coronavirus cases are surging at a time when the seasonal flu typically results in a spike in hospitalizations in Maine.

New cases also have impacted court operations in Kennebec and Cumberland counties this week.

The Capital Judicial Center in Augusta closed for three days this week – Monday through Wednesday – because a courthouse employee tested positive for COVID-19.

Two prosecutors in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office also have tested positive since Thursday. The Portland courthouse did not close or restrict operations, but District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said his staff is mostly working remotely as a precaution. Twenty employees have tested negative in recent days, he said, and others were still waiting for their results Tuesday.

Sahrbeck said the employee who tested positive in Kennebec County worked in the clerk’s office, which warranted a different response from the judicial branch.

“The clerk’s office employees are integral to making the courthouse run, which is why it had to close,” he wrote in an email. “We are lucky that despite having many people work from home, the members of the District Attorney’s Office can still participate in court hearings remotely. Given that, I can understand why there was not a closure.”

A spokeswoman from the Judicial Branch said the decision to close a courthouse involves “a variety of factors,” including the amount of cleaning that is required and whether the building can still be properly staffed.

Staff Writers Colin Woodard and Megan Gray contributed to this report.

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