Maine reported 436 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths on Friday as the troubling increase in case counts shows no signs of slowing.

After topping 400 daily cases for the first time Dec. 6, Maine saw more than 500 daily new cases on Wednesday and Thursday as the pandemic rages here and across the country. The seven-day daily average stood at 449.7 on Friday, compared to 336.3 a week ago and 190.6 a month ago. Two months ago, the seven-day daily average was only 28.1.

Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor reported a major outbreak on Friday with 32 people – 27 staff members and five patients – testing positive for COVID-19. The investigation is continuing, but there has been some confirmed connections to community spread being linked to the outbreak, according to a hospital news release.

“What has been confirmed is that, together, we are fighting an enemy that does not play by the rules. This virus moves fast, it is silent to start, and, as the community spread continues to rise, we cannot count on a negative test alone as an assurance of safety,” EMMC President Rand O’Leary said in a statement. “Our healthcare workers continue to show incredible dedication and commitment to caring. We all need to do our part: practice social distancing, wash your hands and wear a mask. We are very thankful for the promise the arrival of a vaccine brings, but understand that this solution, too, will take time. We must stay vigilant together,”

Hospital officials did not identify where in the hospital the outbreak occurred, but said patients on that floor will be quarantined for 14 days.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday that the investigation at EMMC is ongoing. York Hospital also is dealing with an active outbreak of more than 50 cases.

“The fact that we have seen outbreaks in hospitals is evidence of just how aggressive the COVID-19 virus can be,” Shah said. “Oftentimes when we see an outbreak in hospitals, it’s a function of community transmission, from individuals congregating outside of work and then coming to the hospital.”

Another investigation is underway at the Maine Veterans’ Homes in Scarborough, where 14 residents died this spring in one of the state’s deadliest outbreaks. There were three new cases there, as of Friday.

The new outbreaks and continued surge in cases come as the first health care workers started receiving the vaccine this week. More than 2,000 workers in Maine had been immunized for COVID-19 by Friday morning with vaccinations expected to ramp up next week.

Shah said Wednesday that Maine is seeing the results of a Thanksgiving surge, and urged Mainers to not gather for Christmas beyond immediate family. Overall, Maine has recorded 18,337 cases of COVID-19, with 281 deaths.

The sharp increase in hospitalizations early this month that has since leveled off might be tied to Thanksgiving gatherings, he said. The Maine CDC reported 177 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on Friday, down 14 from one day earlier, with 46 in critical care and 15 on a ventilator.

“The concern is that as we go into more winter holidays next week, there’s that possibility of more transmission leading to more hospitalizations in the 10-12 days after,” Shah said.

Peg Wiley of Portland walks home on Congress Street after a visit to the post office to mail her niece a birthday present. Staff photo by Derek Davis

New cases were reported Friday in every county in Maine, led by Cumberland County with 112 cases, or 26 percent of all cases, followed by York County with 64 and Oxford County with 48. Among the deaths reported Friday: three men in their 70s from Kennebec County, a woman in her 80s from York County and a man in his 80s from Kennebec County.

Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that Cumberland County has been moved into the yellow designation under the Department of Education’s color-coded system, joining Androscoggin, York and Oxford counties. Under the yellow designation, schools are advised to use a hybrid learning model to limit the number of students at any one time. All school districts in Cumberland County are using a hybrid model already, so Friday’s change is not likely to have an impact on learning.

However, the change will halt high school sports and extracurricular activities for at least the next two weeks. Sports teams had been meeting for skills and conditioning sessions but now will be unable hold any athletic activities, with coaches limited to communicating with players virtually. The next update by the department of education is scheduled for Dec. 31

All other counties remain green, although school districts in many of those counties are using a hybrid learning model.

As of Thursday, there had been 546 confirmed or probable cases associated with schools in the last 30 days. There are 41 schools with open outbreaks, including 13 with five or more cases, according to the department of education. Shah said Friday that although it seems like there have been a lot of outbreaks at schools, transmission within the schools has been minimal and he credited staff and students for taking appropriate safety measures.

Maine is also again tops in the nation for the R(t) factor, a measure of how much the virus is growing, according to the Rt.live website, which has been tracking the measure since the spring.

When the R(t) is above 1 – Maine is currently at 1.26 – it’s considered to be more likely for the virus to spread. The metric estimates the average number of people to become infected by each infected person. But the R(t) factor is only one metric, and many states have had exploding cases despite low R(t) rates. For instance, Rhode Island’s rate has been below 1 since Nov. 24, but currently has the second-highest seven-day average case rate in the nation at 110.4 per 100,000 people, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Maine has the third-lowest case rate in the country at 30.6 per 100,000, with only Vermont and Hawaii having lower virus prevalence.

Other states that have seen huge fall surges in virus cases, such as South Dakota and North Dakota, have had R(t) rates near or below one since late October.

Meanwhile, vaccine distribution is continuing, although Maine, like many other states, received word that it would receive a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine next week that contained 40 percent fewer doses than originally anticipated, a reduction from 13,650 doses to 8,775. The reduction means the state will not immediately be able to fully launch the retail pharmacy program that is expected to vaccinate residents and staff of nursing homes starting next week.

On a positive note, a second vaccine developed by Moderna Inc. and the National Institutes of Health received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday, boosting efforts to beat back an outbreak so dire that the nation is regularly recording more than 3,000 deaths a day. Shipments of the Moderna vaccine are expected to begin Monday.

The state is expected to receive roughly 75,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by the end of December, with larger rollouts in 2021. Still, it is expected to take months – likely spring or summer – before the vaccines are available to the general population.

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