Maine health officials reported 12 additional deaths of people with COVID-19 on Tuesday and 274 new cases amid a troubling surge in infections and mortality that shows no signs of abating.

The spike in deaths – tied for the second-largest total reported in one day in Maine – comes a day after Maine saw no additional deaths, but 427 new cases, which was a single-day record. To date, there have been 14,049 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 among Maine residents and 239 deaths, according to the latest figures from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Maine CDC noted that the deaths were reported to the state on Tuesday, but that not all of them occurred during the previous 24-hour period.

Four of the deaths occurred in Androscoggin County: two women in their 70s and two women in their 80s. There were also three deaths in Cumberland County (two women in their 80s and one in her 70s), two in York County (a woman in her 90s and a man in his 80s), one in Kennebec County (a man in his 80s), one in Hancock County (a woman in her 70s) and one in Aroostook County (a man in his 80s).

A pedestrian passes a storefront on Middle Street in Portland on Tuesday morning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer   Buy this Photo

In terms of new infections, Cumberland County experienced the largest single-day jump, with 90 new cases, followed by 57 in York County, 22 in Penobscot County, 18 in Androscoggin County, 17 in Oxford County, 15 in Aroostook County and smaller increases in each of Maine’s other counties. Androscoggin continues to have the highest infection rate, 165 cases for every 10,000 residents, while Aroostook has the lowest, at 31 cases for every 10,000 people.

Maine’s seven-day moving average stood at 296 daily cases on Tuesday, compared with 163 four weeks ago.

After accounting for the 239 deaths and 10,247 people who have recovered from COVID-19, there were 3,563 active cases of the disease in Maine as of Tuesday. That is roughly double the figure from four weeks earlier and six times the number reported on Oct. 8, further evidence of how quickly the virus is spreading.

There were 171 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across Maine as of Tuesday, up one from the previous day but 10 times higher than the number of hospitalizations reported on Nov. 1. The number of people being treated in intensive care units declined slightly from 52 to 49 between Monday and Tuesday, but patients requiring ventilators ticked up from 17 to 19.

While Maine hospitals still had 93 available critical care beds – out of 379 critical care beds statewide – the recent surge in hospitalizations is putting more strain on hospital workers as the global pandemic enters its 10th month.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah has said the majority of cases now result from community transmission or small gatherings, but the agency continues to investigate multiple outbreaks occurring in nursing homes, health care settings, schools and workplaces throughout the state.

On Tuesday, York Hospital reported a cluster of four cases among staff members in the hospital’s medical-surgical team. In response, the hospital planned to test all potentially exposed patients and caregivers every five days while urging the individuals to quarantine. The infected staff members have been isolated and patient care continues at the hospital and outpatient community sites.

“This outbreak, due to its isolated area of impact, does not warrant widespread testing of all caregivers,” said Dr. Evangeline Thibodeau, who heads York Hospital’s infection control team. “We, instead, are directing our efforts toward those patients and healthcare workers who have experienced direct contact with the affected staff.”

A city-run child care center in Augusta partially closed and directed 20 employees to quarantine after a child attending programs last week tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, state officials announced that the Maine CDC was scaling back case investigation and contact tracing of COVID-19 because the pace of new cases was exceeding agency staff’s ability to keep up. Rather than attempting to investigate each new case, Maine CDC will focus on those considered at highest risk of severe illness or of spreading the virus to others.

Those include individuals age 65 or older, people under age 18, health care workers and first responders, hospitalized individuals, those with disabilities, people living or working in congregate living facilities – such as nursing homes, group homes, homeless shelters or correctional facilities – and individuals associated with schools or child care facilities.

The change will result in an estimated 40 to 60 percent of individuals with COVID-19 having their cases investigated or contact traced, which is when trained personnel reach out to close personal contacts of the individual to advise them of potential exposure and instruct them to quarantine.

People who don’t fall into the vulnerable or high-risk categories will still be notified of a positive test, provided with guidance and asked to notify close contacts on their own.

In one of her most recent changes, Gov. Janet Mills set a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues, but stopped short of the “stay at home” orders reimposed by her counterparts in other states experiencing even larger surges.

Even so, some organizations are scaling back operations in response to the recent case trends.

The Portland Museum of Art announced that beginning on Wednesday it was “voluntarily and temporarily closed to the public until further notice.” In addition to offering a host of online or virtual programs, the museum had been offering a limited number of tickets for specific time slots through advanced reservations.

“The goal of this closure is to support the efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure the health and safety of our staff, visitors, and community,” the museum said in a statement posted on its website.

Despite the recent surge in infections and deaths, Maine continues to fare better numerically than most other states. Maine’s infection rate of 21 people for every 100,000 residents was second-lowest among the states after Vermont and is a fraction of many states. North Dakota, by comparison, has the highest infection rate with more than 10,900 cases for every 100,000 residents, according to tracking by The New York Times.

During his last briefing with the media on Monday, Shah acknowledged that COVID-19 is “bad everywhere” around the country, but noted that Maine’s positivity rate is less than half the national rate. At the same time, Shah said the decision to scale back contact tracing – viewed as a critical tool in helping to reduce spread of the virus by convincing those potentially exposed to quarantine – was a painful one to make and is in line with similar decisions in other states experiencing surges.

“We are facing significant challenges here in Maine,” Shah said. “There are places in the country that are facing even more significant challenges.”

Nationwide, there have been an estimated 15 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 283,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracking system.

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