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Apr. 14—Maine health officials reported 547 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, continuing a rapid rise that comes as the state scrambles to keep pace with vaccinations amid a drop-off in doses and the unexpected pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Four additional deaths were reported as well.
Wednesday marked the second consecutive day of at least 500 new cases. The last time that happened was Jan. 21-22 during the post-holiday surge. The seven-day daily case average now stands at 385, which is up from 219 two weeks ago and from 176 this time last month, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, vaccinations have slowed this week, a trend that could continue next week, too, as the number of new doses coming to Maine is expected to remain flat.
As has been the case for several days now, not all the new cases reported Wednesday occurred in the last 24 hours. Staff at the Maine CDC has been unable to verify and analyze all the positive tests that have been coming in on any given day.
Of the additional cases reported Wednesday, 103 were from positive test results on Tuesday, 180 were from positive test results on Monday, 74 were from Sunday and 154 were from Saturday. The remaining 40 were from earlier dates that came from manual submission of test results, CDC spokesman Robert Long said.
Still, there is no question cases have been increasing steadily for weeks now and that the surge has been driven largely by younger people who have not yet been vaccinated. Of the new cases Wednesday, 247 (or 45 percent) were among those under 30 and another 136 cases (25 percent) were people in their 30s. Just 13 new cases were detected in individuals 70 or older.
So far, the state has seen 64 "breakthrough" cases in which people who have been vaccinated become infected. These cases are to be expected since none of the vaccines is 100 percent effective. Even if a person who is vaccinated contracts COVID-19, the vaccines limit the risk of severe illness or death. Only one breakthrough case in Maine has resulted in death, and that person had other health factors that contributed to their death, Long said.
Since the pandemic began, there have been 55,374 confirmed or probable cases and 757 people have died.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine increased slightly to 98 on Wednesday, including 33 in critical care and 13 on ventilators. Totals haven't been this high since early-to-mid February, a trend Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah called "concerning."
In all, Maine has administered 925,046 total doses. Of those, 529,263 have been first doses, representing 39.4 percent of the population, and 395,783 have been final doses, accounting for 29.4 percent of Mainers. Among residents 60 or older, who are at highest risk of serious illness or death from the virus, 68 percent have been fully vaccinated. Among those 70 or older, that jumps to about 79 percent.
But the numbers have fallen this week. Maine administered 12,687 doses of vaccine on Tuesday and 13,324 doses the day before, according to the Maine CDC. Last week, after all Mainers 16 and older became eligible, the state posted three consecutive days of more than 20,000 shots in arms.
The drop-off is a result of fewer doses coming into Maine — both to hospitals, health care practices and to retail pharmacies — and to Tuesday's decision by the U.S. CDC and the Food and Drug Administration to recommend a pause in the administration of Johnson & Johnson vaccines. That decision was made after reports that six people — out of more than 7 million who received the one-dose vaccines — developed blood clots after getting vaccinated. All were in women 18 to 48. One died.
Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said a handful of small pop-up clinics managed by Northern Light were canceled in light of Tuesday's news, but arrangements were being made to get appointments elsewhere to individuals who were affected.
Even as they called for a pause out of an abundance of caution, top public health experts said the risks remain exceedingly low, far lower than the risk of developing serious illness or dying from COVID-19. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for the brief pause was to let health care providers know to be on the lookout for any possible blood clots in patients who have had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and to ensure that those patients are treated properly.
The U.S. CDC convened a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Wednesday to further review these cases and assess their potential significance. The FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these cases. The pause will last until that process is complete, but it's expected to be days not weeks.
In the meantime, Maine and other states will have to do without additional doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which will no doubt slow efforts.
Maine's supply of vaccines is not expected to increase next week. According to allotments posted Tuesday on the U.S. CDC website, Maine is eligible to receive 15,400 new doses of Moderna vaccine for next week and 21,060 doses of Pfizer. It will not receive any Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
That's 230 fewer doses than Maine received this week, although that doesn't include separate allocations to retail pharmacies under a partnership with the federal government. But that total is likely to be lower as well because the majority of doses going to pharmacies in recent weeks have been Johnson & Johnson.
Jarvis said the demand for vaccines across Northern Light sites remains high and he's been pleased to see younger people filling appointments.