A passenger on a bus wears a mask and appears to be apart from other riders as the bus makes its way down Congress Street in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine’s current trend of high COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths is likely to continue, and could get worse, before vaccines have a chance to slow the virus’ spread.

For the sixth time in the last nine days, state health officials reported more than 400 cases on Tuesday. In addition to the 411 new cases, six more individuals died.

The seven-day daily average of new cases rose to 388 on Tuesday, compared to 298 a week ago, 181 a month ago and 28 cases two months ago. In all, there have been 16,760 confirmed or probable cases since the pandemic reached Maine. That number has more than tripled in the last two months. Active cases now sit at 5,881 – compared to 2,098 at this time last month and 619 in mid-October.

New cases were reported in every Maine county, led by Cumberland County with 152 and York County with 121. Although community level transmission is driving the latest trends, some of the increase in York County is tied to an outbreak of 35 staff members and 14 patients at York Hospital.

“There will still be quite some time where we will all need to keep up the public health habits we’ve all formed,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Maine Public’s “Maine Calling” radio program.

Shah said that with greater vaccine availability, the COVID-19 numbers should improve in 2021, although it’s difficult to say exactly when. It’s not like flipping a switch.

“Pandemics don’t end with a bang, they end with a whimper,” he said.

Just how bad the virus will get in Maine before vaccines start having an impact months from now is difficult to predict. Many other states that have COVID-19 restrictions similar to Maine’s currently have two to three times the number of daily cases on a seven-day average, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute.

The New England states, like much of the country, have seen robust growth in cases, hospitalizations and deaths this fall heading into what is likely to be a grim winter.

Among New England states, where COVID-19 control measures such as mask mandates and limits on indoor gatherings have been relatively similar, Maine has the second-lowest virus rate in the region at 27.6 cases per 100,000 population on a seven-day average, according to the institute. New Hampshire and Massachusetts have rates slightly more than twice that of Maine’s, while Connecticut, at 76.3 cases per 100,000, has nearly three times the prevalence of the virus as Maine.

If Maine’s virus prevalence a month from now trends similar to where Connecticut is currently, cases in Maine could reach 1,200 per day. Shah said Tuesday that seeing daily cases rise to more than 1,000 per day could have “devastating” consequences on the state’s health care system.

But he also said if people stop gathering, wear masks and wash hands frequently, the numbers could be much better.

Gov. Janet Mills warned last week that if Maine’s virus numbers worsen, the state may have to impose business closings and further reduce gathering sizes.

Meanwhile, the United States  is averaging about 2,500 deaths per day, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, said in an online public forum Tuesday that while the vaccine news is promising, the national response to curtail COVID-19 has been inadequate. He said there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate level of alarm despite the thousands of people dying every day.

“We should be considering the current situation like we have a bomb being dropped on the United States every day,” Mina said.

The number of COVID-19 deaths in Maine increased to 265 on Tuesday. There have now been 48 deaths recorded this month, which puts December on pace to be Maine’s deadliest month to date by far. In November, 67 people died from COVID-19, more than the five previous months combined.

The deaths reported Tuesday were a man in his 80s from Androscoggin County, a man in his 60s from Androscoggin County, a man in his 70s from Cumberland County, a woman in her 70s from Cumberland County, a woman in her 90s from Hancock County and a man in his 80s from York County.

Hospitalizations remain high as well – 195 individuals were in the hospital on Tuesday, including 55 in critical care and 19 on ventilators.

The worsening trends come as vaccines are expected to continue rolling into Maine this week, with about 4,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine expected today, while the state could also start seeing shipments of the Moderna vaccine arrive early next week. On Monday, the first shipments of vaccines arrived, with 975 doses sent to Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland and an additional 975 going to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Maine Medical Center received a shipment of about 1,900 doses on Tuesday. The first COVID-19 vaccine administered in Maine went into the arm of Maine Med nurse Kayla Mitchell on Tuesday morning.

In total, the initial shipments are expected to be 12,675 doses for hospitals and nursing homes, while the state is projected to receive about 75,000 doses of both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines within the next two to three weeks. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require an initial dose and then a booster shot three to four weeks later.

Larger shipments of vaccine doses are projected to begin in January, and the vaccines could be available to the general population by this spring or early summer.

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