Maine reported 439 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and three additional deaths, as vaccinations continue and public health officials brace for another potential surge stemming from Christmas holiday travel.

Since the pandemic began, 22,319 people in Maine have tested positive for COVID-19, and 326 have died.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a media briefing to expect a surge of new cases in January from the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, similar to the spike in COVID-19 infections Maine experienced in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

“I am anticipating a high number of people returning to Maine who need to be tested, so I am expecting to see an increase in testing volume,” Shah said. He said the testing increase will likely be driven by holiday travel, and people who feel ill after traveling and may have contracted COVID-19 at a holiday gathering.

Although the state testing lab was closed Christmas morning, Shah said, the lab has already caught up and there is no testing backlog that would lead to a jump in case numbers.

The seven-day daily average of new cases stood at 481.8 on Monday, compared to 419.4 a week ago and 190.2 a month ago.

Despite warnings to avoid travel over the holidays, the Transportation Security Administration screened 1.3 million travelers Sunday in the nation’s airports, a pandemic record. Traffic at Portland International Jetport during the holiday weeks was expected to be higher than in early to mid-December, but 50 to 60 percent lower than it was during the same period last year, jetport Director Paul Bradbury said last week.

Maine’s vaccine rollout continues, but Shah warned that mass vaccinations won’t begin until 2021 and it may take several months before there is an impact on case numbers. He said a return to some form of normal could take a long time, and the new normal may not resemble life as it was in December 2019.

“It (mass vaccination) is definitely the light at the end of a very long, twisting and turning and convoluted tunnel,” Shah said.

Through Sunday, more than 17,000 Maine people – predominantly health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic – had been vaccinated, about 1.3 percent of the state’s population. Maine is immunizing people faster than most states, according to a vaccine tracker by Bloomberg News. When measuring those vaccinated as a percentage of the state’s total population, only West Virginia, Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota had immunized more people per capita than Maine, with West Virginia leading the nation at 1.7 percent.

More shipments of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are expected this week, but Shah said the 19,125 doses Maine is likely to get would be 370 less than anticipated. Last week, Maine was shorted about 4,875 doses. Federal officials have told the state that the discrepancies are largely because Pfizer has been able to produce vaccine doses more quickly than it has been able to ship them out, Shah said.

Shah said that’s having a ripple effect, and makes the logistics of vaccine distribution more difficult.

“That is the second week in a row we are receiving less than what we were projected to receive,” Shah said. “When what we get doesn’t match what we planned for, we have to go back to drawing board.”

About 8,000 of the doses received this week will go to long-term-care facilities, and about 11,000 will go to hospitals, first responders and home health workers, Shah said.

A pedestrian walks across the intersection of Congress and High streets on Wednesday afternoon. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

By the end of this week, Maine will have received about 26,300 doses in all, according to the Maine CDC. Besides hospitals, long-term health care facilities and paramedics are also starting to receive the vaccines. All told, there are about 130,000 people who would be vaccinated in the first phase, which could take months.

The Portland Fire Department reported that 80 firefighters who are cross-trained as paramedics and EMTs were vaccinated last weekend, with an additional 80 slated to get the shot this week.

The deaths reported on Monday were three people from York County, a man in his 80s, a man in his 70s and a woman in her 70s.

Current hospitalizations in Maine numbered 181 on Monday, including 48 patients in intensive care.

Also Monday, Dr. Jessica Pollard, director of the Maine Office of Behavioral Health, reminded Maine people to seek mental health and substance use disorder care, health conditions that are often worsened during the stress of the holiday season. Pollard said a “silver lining” in the pandemic is that telehealth services for behavioral health have expanded, making them easier to access, and she hopes that trend will continue even after the pandemic has ended.

“I encourage people not to wait (to seek care) until they feel really poorly. If you’re struggling even a little bit, don’t wait,” Pollard said. “Prevention is just as important for mental health as it is for other parts of health.”

For access to behavioral health services, call the StrengthenME hotline at 221-8198, seven days per week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The StrengthenME service is free and confidential.

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