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Apr. 26—State health officials reported 229 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and no additional deaths, as the state surpassed the 60,000 mark for total cases during the pandemic.
Monday was the second straight day of comparatively lower case numbers and brought the seven-day, rolling average down to 360 compared to 475 one week ago. But testing volume frequently lags on weekends and the current average is still significantly higher than the rolling average of 201 for the period ending four weeks ago.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, called the higher case rates "deeply concerning" and noted that hospitalizations are also up sharply from a month ago.
"So we continue to have sustained, community levels of transmission of COVID-19 across the state," Shah told lawmakers at a briefing on Monday. "Top-to-bottom, left-to-right, statewide — we are continuing to see high rates of disease."
On the vaccination front, however, Maine has one of the highest inoculation rates in the country.
As of Sunday evening, 45.2 percent of the state's population had received at least one dose of vaccine while 35.6 percent had received all shots necessary for full vaccination against COVID-19. Those figures rise to 54 percent and 42.5 percent, respectively, when zeroing in on the 16-and-older age group currently eligible for vaccination.
Maine had the highest percentage of fully vaccinated individuals in the nation and ranked fourth in first doses administered behind New England neighbors New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to tracking by Bloomberg.
Over the weekend, the Maine CDC recommended that health care providers resume offering vaccinations with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to individuals age 18 or older after federal officials lifted a nationwide pause that was put in place to evaluate rare reports of blood clots. Federal agencies determined that the risk to recipients was extremely low — much lower than the risk posed by COVID-19 — and that the vaccine was otherwise effective.
At a mobile unit set up at Biddeford High School, vaccinations with the single-shot J&J vaccine were available without an appointment on Monday, and walk-in inoculations are expected to continue through Wednesday.
The unit operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency appeared to be doing a brisk business on Monday. Early in the afternoon, the school's main parking lot was more than half full, 10 to 12 cars were parked on the street and side parking lots were full.
By the time the unit closed for the day, FEMA had administered 490 shots — just shy of the 500-shot target — and 215 of those were to walk-ins. On Sunday, the crew at the mobile vaccination unit administered 524 shots, the majority to people who did not make an appointment beforehand.
FEMA spokesman Patrick Boland said the walk-in option was proving popular.
"We are going to continue to use this," Boland said of walk-in vaccination.
Individuals with scheduled appointments will be given priority, however, walk-in vaccination will be available to those who show up by 3:30 p.m. each day as long as supplies allow. To schedule a vaccination appointment at the Biddeford location or to check on other clinic locations, call the state's Community Vaccination Line at 1-888-445-4111 or visit VaccinateME.maine.gov.
Nationally, the state continues to experience some of the highest rates of new infections among unvaccinated individuals.
Maine reported 26.5 new cases per 100,000 residents during the past week, which was the ninth-highest rate in the nation but is an improvement from last week, according to data from the Global Epidemics program at Brown University School of Public Health. The highest new infection rate in the state is occurring in Androscoggin County, which recorded 58.6 cases per 100,000 residents.
There were 114 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Monday — down from 122 on Saturday — but 46 of those individuals were in critical care units and 16 were connected to ventilators. Prior to this recent surge, hospitalizations with COVID-19 had been consistently hovering in the 70s or 80s after a post-holiday surge that saw hospitalizations climb above 200 for the first time in Maine.
During his briefing with lawmakers on Monday, Shah said he is still waiting for word from federal officials about when Maine will receive additional shipments of the J&J vaccine. Because the J&J variety only requires one dose and can be stored in a refrigerator, rather than a freezer or ultra-cold storage, the vaccine is considered a prime candidate for vaccination clinics targeting harder-to-reach populations.
Plans for another vaccination clinic in downtown Lewiston — which has experienced the biggest surge in recent weeks along with Androscoggin County — had to be delayed because of the J&J vaccine's 11-day suspension. Shah said he hopes to have that site, which will offer walk-in vaccinations, up and running soon once the state starts receiving shipments of J&J doses again.
But Shah also acknowledged that the pause on J&J vaccine administration has heightened the reluctance among some to receive the shot despite the fact that, to date, less than 20 cases of rare blood clots have been reported out of nearly 8 million doses delivered. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that less than 25 percent of unvaccinated individuals who participated in the survey would be willing to get the J&J shot.
"So we are trying to come up with a contingency plan to use Moderna if that's what the preference on the ground is," Shah said of the planned clinic in downtown Lewiston.
Shah told members of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee that he believes easy and convenient access to a shot, not hesitancy about vaccination in general, is the biggest reason that many people have yet to be vaccinated.
"Our main focus right now is convenience," Shah said. "Can we offer more walk-in hours? Can we offer early-morning and later-evening hours for those who have to work? Can we get as much J&J vaccine into the state?"
To date, the Maine CDC has tracked a total of 60,005 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in Maine in March 2020. There have been at least 772 deaths liked to the viral disease, although the rate of new deaths has slowed dramatically in recent months as the most vulnerable population — those above age 70 — have been vaccinated.