Sep. 16—Demand for COVID-19 testing continues to grow in Maine as the delta variant drives up infections across the state, with 652 new cases and three additional deaths reported on Thursday.
The pace of molecular-based or PCR testing for the viral disease surged 27.5 percent over the previous week while the rate of tests that came back positive for COVID-19 hit 7.1 percent on Thursday, which is the highest level since early January. Rates were even higher in some areas of the state.
Northern Light Health, which operates Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor as well as Portland's Mercy Hospital and eight other hospitals, reported a 12.4 percent positivity rate for the week ending on Wednesday. Across Northern Light's system, clinics were testing between 1,000 and 1,400 people a day during the week plus another 500 to 800 daily on weekends.
"[We] are continuing to see an upward weekly trend in testing demand and are experiencing the highest demand we have had to date," said Northern Light spokeswoman Karen Cashman. While there was currently no wait time for people who qualified for free testing paid for by the state, the network recommended individuals pre-register for a test.
The positivity rate is the percentage of tests that come back positive for COVID-19 during a specific period of time. The fact that both the number of tests being conducted and the positivity rate are increasing in Maine indicates the virus is still spreading in communities. Maine's positive test rate dropped as low as 0.45 in July before the delta variant took hold.
The demand for free testing has led to longer waits for some people, particularly in more populated areas of the state. The pharmacy chain CVS, for example, was scheduling state-supported tests into next week for most locations in the Portland area on Thursday. And take-home testing kits are selling out at pharmacies across the state and the nation.
Justin Richards, a pharmacist at Community Pharmacy of Saco, said the store receives just 12 packages of the COVID-19 tests per week on Mondays, and they sell out quickly.
"It's a big bummer because everybody's looking for one," he said of the at-home test kits, which sell of roughly $40.
While multiple providers across the state, including Northern Light and MaineHealth, continue to offer testing to anyone for a fee that typically runs around $100, the free state-supported tests are no longer available for pre-travel purposes because of the surge in demand.
Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident command leader for Northern Light, said the high positivity rate is not a statistical anomaly but, instead, is a clear indication of the the extent of community transmission.
"The reason that we are not doing as many testing for things like travel is simply because we have so much disease out there that it is taking up all of our resources in terms of testing," said during a press briefing on Wednesday. "So this really is a good, predictive indicator of what we are seeing in our communities."
The pace of new cases is so fast that staff at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been unable to keep up as staff worked through a backlog of nearly 3,000 positive test results. Test results must be reviewed in order to distinguish new cases from previously identified infected individuals who are still testing positive.
As a result, not all of the 652 new cases reported on Thursday likely occurred in the previous 24-hour period.
Even so, the current surge is now rivaling Maine's previous peak of the coronavirus back in January when vaccines were just starting to become available nationwide.
While the highly contagious delta variant is also infecting fully vaccinated people, the majority of new cases and nearly all of the most serious COVID-related illnesses are occurring within the state's smaller population of unvaccinated individuals. Fully vaccinated people comprise 64.4 percent of the state's 1.3 million residents as of Thursday morning.
"Based on every epidemiological factor we are seeing, we are anticipating seeing continued, sustained high numbers of cases for at least the coming week — perhaps even longer than that," Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said on Wednesday.
"This is a peak upon a peak — even greater than we thought we were going to get," Shah said.
The three additional deaths were two men and one woman all age 70 or older from Penobscot, Somerset and Waldo counties. To date, there have been 979 COVID-related deaths in Maine since March 2020 and the Maine CDC has tracked 82,607 confirmed or positive cases of the virus.
Maine's infections rate remains one of the highest in New England but lower than most of the nation. The state has reported an average of 34 new daily infections per 100,000 people over the last seven days, which ranks 40th among the states, according to a tracker published by Brown University School of Public Health. The national average is 46 cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days.
On Thursday, there were 194 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19, 70 of whom were in critical care units with 38 connected to ventilators to assist with breathing. That is down from the 42 people on ventilators on Wednesday, which is the highest figure during the 19-month pandemic.
Hospitals across the state have been struggling to keep up with the pressure during a normally busy time of year, with just 52 of the 333 ICU beds across the state available on Thursday. Hospitals are also bracing for even larger numbers of COVID patients in the coming weeks because hospitalizations typically lag begin new cases by several weeks.
Maine's young people now account for the majority of new cases on some days as schools re-open to in-classroom instruction for the fall semester.
Maine's Department of Education had not released an updated list of school outbreaks as of late Thursday, but the number has clearly climbed since the state announced 14 outbreaks last week. An outbreak is three or more epidemiologically connected cases.
Yarmouth High School, for example, is now considered to be in outbreak status, the district's superintendent said Thursday.
"Fortunately, because we are already implementing safety protocols such as physical distancing, universal masking, and (soon) pooled testing, this status will not significantly change how we are conducting business," Andrew Dolloff wrote in a letter to the school community.
Dolloff also said a positive test in the Frank Harrison Middle School community means about 24 people have been told to quarantine at home. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Maine students are in quarantine because of similar incidents around the state.
On Wednesday, the Maine Department of Education released statistics showing that 76 percent of school staff statewide were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But the vaccination rates varied dramatically depending on the school and the region.
Cumberland County reported the highest average of school staff vaccination rates at 88.9 percent while Waldo County schools had the lowest inoculation rate in the state at 60.7 percent.
Unlike for health care workers in Maine, there is no vaccination mandate for school employees. Such a requirement is not off the table, however, according to officials in the Mills administration.