The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Maine rose sharply Thursday as new highly contagious strains of the virus spread throughout the state.

But an easing of case counts earlier this week resulted in Maine’s southern and coastal counties being removed from the list of those experiencing high levels of transmission.

A new map posted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday afternoon shows four Maine counties as having high community levels of the virus: Aroostook, Piscataquis, Penobscot and Hancock. Four other counties that were designated as having high levels a week ago were downgraded to medium: Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox. The remainder of the state also is designated as having medium levels of transmission.

The U.S. CDC recommends universal mask wearing indoors in counties with high community levels. Masks are recommended for at-risk people in medium-level counties. The designations are based on infection rates, hospitalizations and hospital capacity.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 221 inpatients Thursday, up from 209 Wednesday. Of those hospitalized as of Thursday, 31 were in critical care and two were on ventilators.

The state also reported 1,001 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths.

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The seven-day average is now 694 new cases per day, more than double the daily average two weeks ago. Maine continues to have one of the highest infection rates in the country, with 347 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. The national average is 179 cases per 100,000 people. Maine’s infection rate ranks fourth after Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York.

Official case counts indicate whether transmission is speeding up or slowing down, but they undercount actual infections because so many people now rely on at-home tests that are not included in official counts.

The latest genomic testing indicates that there are now several omicron subvariants driving infections in Maine, including omicron BA.2, BA.2.12.1 and BA.2.7, according to data posted by the Maine CDC. The subvariants are even more contagious than the original omicron strain, but do not appear to cause more severe symptoms.

The sharp rise in reported cases in the past three weeks and the higher transmission levels prompted the Bangor and Portland school districts to reinstate indoor mask mandates. Bangor’s requirement began Monday, while Portland’s took effect Thursday.

Other districts, including Lake Region, which covers Bridgton, Casco and Naples; Maine School Administrative District 15 in Gray-New Gloucester; and Regional School Unit 14 in Windham announced that some of their schools were going to remote learning Thursday and Friday because of the increasing COVID-19 cases and resulting staffing shortages.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 253,654 cases and 2,332 deaths.

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