Growing Maine case surge threatens vaccination progress

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Eric Russell, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Apr. 1—Evidence is growing that Maine and the United States are at the front end of yet another surge of COVID-19 cases that could jeopardize progress made on vaccinations.

With 283 new cases reported Thursday — the highest daily total in nearly two months — Maine's seven-day daily case average increased to 232. It hasn't been that high since February 9.

In the last 15 days, cases have risen above 200 on 10 occasions. In the 15 days prior, that happened only three times.

Asked Thursday what might be behind the current surge, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah called it a "$64,000 question." He said states are starting to see larger shares of coronavirus variants, especially Florida and Michigan, although Massachusetts is catching up. The other reason is simply that more people are traveling, some to states where restrictions have been softened.

"Which of those is really the main driver, that's what some epidemiologists across the country are trying to find out," he said.

Maine has detected 15 cases of the variant known as B.1.1.7 that was first detected in the United Kingdom, but that number is almost certainly higher because only 5 percent of positive COVID-19 cases are sequenced to determine if they are, in fact, a variant.

"The variants are here," Gov. Janet Mills said. "They are spreading to every region of the state and they are more transmissible and potentially more dangerous."

As a way to stay ahead of those variants, Mills announced Thursday that she was moving up vaccine eligibility for all adults to next Wednesday. Already, the date had been moved ahead from May 1 just a few weeks ago.

Maine isn't alone. More than half of all states have seen their cases increase by at least 10 percent over the last week, according to data analysis by Johns Hopkins University. The United States as a whole has reported an average of 65,000 new cases in the last seven days, according to U.S. CDC, which is an increase of about 10,000 cases per day from two weeks ago.

Vermont had it's highest single-day total of the pandemic last week, 283, and it's seven-day case average of 178 cases has reached the same levels as the post-holiday surge in January.

New Hampshire's trajectory has been similar to Maine's with the daily average creeping up to about 380 this week after bottoming out near 200 cases this time last month.

Michigan, where more than 1,000 cases of the U.K. variant have been detected, has been especially hard hit and has seen its daily average increase to about 5,400 cases — levels not seen since mid-December.

National health experts have been sounding the alarm in recent days as data shows more people are traveling, including young people for spring break last month, and more states are easing pandemic restrictions.

Maine relaxed indoor and outdoor gathering limits last week and allowed bars and tasting rooms to open. Additionally, residents from all New England states can visit without having to quarantine or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The state does still have other safety measures in place, including a mask mandate in public.

Cases are showing up more frequently among young people. Bates College in Lewiston imposed a "temporary campus-wide, in-room restriction," to address 34 active student cases that has resulted in 50 others being forced to quarantine. Cases have been increasing within the University of Maine System as well.

Dr. Jane Carreiro, dean of the medical school at the University of New England, said she thinks COVID fatigue is more to blame for the spike.

"They are letting down some of their defenses and things they were doing," she said. "The good news is: Hopefully this motivates people to go and get vaccinated."

Carreiro also said that as the spring wears on and summer approaches, case numbers won't be the most important metric. If hospitalizations and deaths decline, she said, cases alone aren't as problematic.

Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have yet to rise with cases, but throughout the pandemic there has been a lag of at least two weeks, so it's too early to tell if that will happen this time. Health experts are hopeful that, because many of those who have been vaccinated are older and therefore at greater risk of hospitalization or death, those numbers will not increase substantially.

Still, there are about 40,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19 in this country. And although deaths have dropped below 1,000 people per day for the first time since November, COVID-19 is still among the leading causes of death.

In Maine, there have been two days in the last week where five deaths have been reported.

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, have been steady for the last two weeks, ranging from a low of 71 to a high of 80. On Thursday, there were 74 individuals in a Maine hospital with COVID-19, including 20 in critical care and five on a ventilator.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. CDC, was emotional this week talking about the current trend.

"I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom," she said during a White House briefing. "We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now, I'm scared."