Maine reported 407 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, but no additional deaths.

It was the third day this week that new COVID-19 cases topped 400, with a record high 427 cases Monday.

The continued high case counts in Maine worry public health officials, because the growth in cases will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, and strain the state’s health care resources in the months before vaccines are likely to become widely available. Currently, 172 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, with 45 in intensive care, about 10 times the daily average during the summer.

On Wednesday, hospital officials and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that staffing shortages are becoming acute as cases rise. Shah said the staffing levels among health care workers who care for COVID-19 patients are “alarming” and the “primary bottleneck” in the health care system.

A pedestrian walks along Congress Street in downtown Portland in mid-November. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Overall, Maine has reported 14,861 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and 246 deaths. The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 330.1 on Thursday, compared to 185.9 a week ago and 162.6 a month ago. Of the new cases Wednesday, 116 were in Cumberland County, 91 in York County, 62 in Androscoggin County and 50 in Oxford County.

The seven-day average daily positivity rate has remained relatively unchanged for a week, at just under 5 percent. The rate stood at 4.7 percent Wednesday, the latest for which data was available. If the percentage of COVID-19 tests returned positive increases, that’s another indication that the pandemic is getting out of control. The national average positivity rate is about 9 percent. In Maine, the rate had dipped as low as about 0.5 percent in summer and early fall, but has been climbing steadily since late October, until it plateaued recently at slightly under 5 percent.

The Maine Department of Education is expected to release updated color-coded advisories for school reopenings Friday. Last week, the DOE categorized Oxford, York, Androscoggin and Somerset as “yellow” counties, with hybrid learning recommended and restrictions on sports and other extracurricular activities. The remaining counties in Maine were “green,” with in-person learning approved.

As of Tuesday, the Maine DOE had reported 397 cases of COVID-19 in schools, with 33 current outbreaks of three or more people.

With the pandemic raging, Maine’s congressional delegation Thursday sent a letter to Alex Azar, the Trump administration’s health and human services secretary, about vaccine distribution.

Vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna are in the final stages of emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration. However, there has been confusion in Maine over how the vaccines are being allocated and the timing and volume of vaccine shipments.

“The development and fair distribution of a safe and effective vaccine are critical to successfully containing the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a letter signed by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent; and Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden. “It is imperative that states have accurate and transparent information about vaccine allocations.”

In Wednesday’s media briefing, Shah compared COVID-19 to a train, and vaccines to a brake. The vaccines will eventually stop the train, but it won’t stop right away, and the vaccines will not bring an immediate end to the pandemic. Although the first doses could arrive in Maine in a few days, it will take many months for the vaccines to become widely available. In the meantime, people still need to wear masks, keep physical distance and avoid gatherings, Shah said.

“It’s not going to be a fairy tale ending,” he said.

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