A man uses his coat sleeve to press the crosswalk button at the intersection of High and Congress streets in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

State health officials reported a daily high of 590 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, breaking the record that had stood for just 24 hours.

There were nine additional deaths as well, adding to what has been by far the deadliest period of the pandemic in Maine.

Since March, there have been 17,901 confirmed or probable cases in the state, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The seven-day average stands at 436 cases, more than double what it was this time last month. Just two months ago, the average number of daily cases was only 30.

In yet another sign of how rapidly the virus has spread in recent weeks, the number of active cases (individuals who have not yet recovered or died with the virus) rose to 6,937 – almost three times the total from one month ago. Put another way, about four out of 10 Maine people who have had COVID-19 have it right now, although it is possible that some of those people have indeed recovered and that news hasn’t reached the CDC yet. The state has scaled back its contact tracing efforts.

A recent state-by-state review of cases conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that from Dec. 3-14 – the period immediately following Thanksgiving – Maine had the highest percent increase in cases nationwide at 99 percent. That was higher than California, Virginia and Georgia, among others.

Asked about the Johns Hopkins data, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said he has no basis to doubt it, but he also said Maine tends to look worse when it comes to percentages because the state began the current surge with far fewer total cases than most states. Nevertheless, Vermont, which like Maine has seen low case numbers compared with other states, saw its cases increase by 8 percent over the same time period.

“I’m not minimizing,” Shah said in a phone interview. “What we’re seeing is deeply concerning.”

Shah acknowledged during a media briefing Wednesday that the state is “squarely seeing” the impact of gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday, and he worried things could get much worse with Christmas a week away.

“If staying home, staying in your pod or in your bubble is something that’s available to you, that’s definitely the most helpful thing you can do this winter,” he said.

New cases were reported Thursday in every Maine county, led by Cumberland County with 152 cases and York County with 111. Even less populated counties, such as Aroostook and Washington, are seeing unprecedented daily increases.

While some counties are seeing transmission rates go up dramatically, others have seen them level off slightly. Androscoggin County, which had been among the biggest hotspots for weeks, has reported comparatively modest case numbers so far this week and had just 18 cases on Thursday.

“A lot of what was going on in Androscoggin County was driven by a couple of really large outbreaks,” Shah said, referring to two long-term care facilities, Clover Health Care in Auburn and Russell Park Rehabilitation & Living Center in Lewiston. “What we’re seeing now is more of that community-level baseline transmission.”

There have now been 276 deaths overall and 100 just in the past 30 days. So far in December, 59 people in Maine have died from COVID-19, which puts this month on pace to be the state’s deadliest. November saw the most COVID-19 deaths so far at 67 – more than the previous five months combined.

Of the nine deaths reported Thursday, five were in Oxford County: a man in his 50s, a man in his 80s, two women in their 70s and a woman in her 80s. The other deaths were a man in his 60s from Aroostook County, a woman in her 70s from Cumberland County, a man in his 50s from Kennebec County and a woman in her 70s from York County. Among all deaths so far, 235 people, or 85 percent, have been 70 or older.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by four to 191 on Thursday, including 46 patients in critical care and 17 on ventilators. In all, 958 people have been hospitalized at some point with the virus.

Because hospitalizations and deaths often lag case spikes by one to two weeks, many more of both could be coming.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills once again tightened the state’s mask requirement for public places, urging businesses to deny entry to anyone not wearing a face covering and to call police if necessary. Business owners who fail to enforce mask compliance could be charged with a Class E crime and fined up to $10,000.

But Mills also said she’s “running out of available public health tools to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” and hinted that more restrictions could be needed.

“If (these) targeted steps don’t work, more severe restrictions might be necessary, including reducing gathering limits as other states have done, or even business closures as some have done,” Mills said. “Those options are a last resort, and they are a last resort because they have such a devastating effect on people, their income and making them feel isolated.”

Asked Thursday if Mills is close to announcing additional restrictions, spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said, “the governor is focused on measures that protect public health while also preserving the economic health of our state,” and mentioned measures that already have been taken.

“While there are still other available tools, the governor believes right now everyone must assume a shared responsibility to protect public health –  that means curtailing normal social events, modifying behaviors, and taking the steps necessary to reduce exposure to this deadly virus,” Crete said in an email. “Everyone must be mindful of the effect of their behavior on the lives of others, including those close to them, and of the crushing burden the pandemic is placing on hospitals, nursing homes and medical professionals across Maine. ”

There hasn’t been any serious talk of closing schools to in-person learning like in the spring. Many schools have adopted a hybrid model in which students go to school two days a week to limit the number in buildings and classes at any one time. According to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Education, there have been 531 COVID-19 cases in the past 30 days associated with schools. That includes 42 schools with active outbreaks, although only 13 of them have more than five cases.

Maine is far from alone in the recent surge. Many other states are seeing their highest levels of cases, hospitalizations and deaths during the current, sustained surge. In fact, Wednesday was the deadliest day of the pandemic in the United States thus far, with more than 3,600 deaths nationwide attributed to COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. The total number is now over 300,000.

The number of new cases Wednesday, more than 247,000, and total hospitalizations, more than 113,000, also broke previous records set only days earlier.

Other states have imposed restrictions in response to the latest spike, including shutting down restaurants for in-person dining, instituting curfews and reducing the allowable limit for indoor gatherings. But some states, including California and Minnesota, are seeing businesses and patrons openly defy those orders.

The worst numbers of the pandemic come at the same time vaccines are slowly starting to be administered. Asked about the disconnect between the positive news about vaccines and the distressing news about cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Shah agreed that it’s “cognitively jarring.”

“But what I tell people is: The human mind can simultaneously have good thoughts and bad thoughts,” he said. “We shouldn’t shy away from good news. We can be saddened by what we’re seeing with cases and deaths and enheartened by the vaccine at the same time.”

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