Maine reports first case of Brazil variant of coronavirus

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Eric Russell, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·8 min read
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Mar. 26—Maine health officials on Friday reported the state's first case of the coronavirus variant that originated in Brazil, and it came on the same day daily case numbers rose to their highest level since early February.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said its latest round of genomic sequencing on positive COVID-19 tests detected the P.1 variant in a Franklin County resident with no recent history of travel. The state also has detected 15 cases of the variant known as B.1.1.7, first found in the United Kingdom, and four cases of the variant B.1.351, which originated in South Africa.

Health officials are closely monitoring the spread of these variants, which are problematic because they are more transmissible than the first iteration of the virus that has infected millions and contributed to more than half a million deaths in this country. The Maine CDC conducts strict contact tracing when a variant is detected, much like when the pandemic first surfaced, but the fact that the recent case was in a person who had not traveled recently is a sign that it's already in the community.

With 253 new cases Friday — the third straight day of more than 200 cases — Maine's seven-day daily case average increased to 194, up from 171 two weeks ago and from 154 this time last month. There have now been 49,443 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began more than a year ago. There were no additional deaths reported Friday, leaving the statewide total at 731.

Younger people continue to drive case numbers, although that is likely in part because more older Mainers have been immunized against the virus. Of the 253 new cases Friday, 49 percent were people under the age of 30. Over the last week, 44 percent of new cases have been those under 30, while just 5 percent of cases have been detected in individuals over the age of 70 who are at greatest risk of death.

Meanwhile, bars and tasting rooms across the state received the green light to open their doors, and indoor and outdoor gathering limits increased, too, as part of a phased reopening announced this month by Gov. Janet Mills.

The Mills administration also announced Friday that all 16 counties will remain in the "green" designation for schools, which means they can continue in-person instruction, "as long as they are able to implement the required health and safety measures," such as masking and distancing. Some schools may need to use a hybrid instruction model if there is insufficient capacity to allow students to safely distance. In the last 30 days, there have been 658 cases among K-12 school staff or students across Maine, and 18 schools have at least five active cases.

The number of people hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19 dropped by five to 73 on Friday. Of them, 27 are in critical care and 10 on a ventilator. Hospitalizations have leveled off after dropping steadily from a high of more than 200 in mid-January. Over the last month, daily hospitalizations have ranged from a low of 62 to a high of 86.

Despite the slight increase in new cases and leveling off of hospitalizations, deaths have declined. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah said Thursday that there hasn't been a death at a long-term care facility in at least 30 days, largely because of vaccinations. Nursing homes and assisted living centers have seen some of the deadliest outbreaks of the pandemic and were prioritized first, along with frontline healthcare workers.

Still, the U.S. is averaging 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per day, along with 57,000 cases. a sign that the pandemic continues to exact a heavy toll. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. CDC, said Friday that cases have risen by about 7 percent in the last week.

"We have seen cases and hospitalizations admissions move from historic declines to stagnation and increases," she said during a briefing. "We know from prior surges that if we don't control things now, there is a real potential for the epidemic curve to soar again."

The CDC is closely watching the spread of the coronavirus variants, particularly the United Kingdom variant, as it has become the dominant strain throughout much of Europe. As of Thursday, there were 8,337 confirmed cases of that variant in the United States. Florida has seen the most cases, with 1,042, followed by Michigan, with 986. nearby Massachusetts has seen its share grow to 441.

Additionally, there have been 266 cases of the South African variant and 79 cases of the Brazil variant.

One of the reasons health experts are so concerned about the Brazil variant is because it has shown to be more resistant to antibodies, meaning people who already had COVID-19 are being re-infected.

The three vaccines in use protect against the Brazil variant and others, which is why experts are pushing to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible to stay ahead of any potential spread.

However, it's difficult to know how widespread the variant might be because the United States is doing minimal sequencing to find out. Detecting variants involves a process called genome sequencing, which takes a sample of a positive test and compares it against hundreds of others to look for differences.

Right now, the U.S. is sequencing less than 1 percent of all positive tests. Maine, however, ranked third behind Wyoming and Hawaii, with 3.4 percent of tests sequenced.

Meanwhile, the number of vaccinated Mainers has been increasing steadily ahead of next week, when the state is expected to receive a 28 percent increase in doses, up to more than 45,000. That doesn't include doses that are delivered directly to retail pharmacies through a partnership with the federal government.

As of Friday morning, 640,060 shots have been administered. Of those, 395,533 were first doses, representing 29.4 percent of Maine's population, and 244,527 were final doses, accounting for 18.2 percent of residents.

Maine ranks in the top 10 for states in both categories, according to a state-by-state tracker by Bloomberg News, but some counties are faring better than others. Lincoln County has the highest rate of residents who have received their first shot, 35.9 percent, while Washington County leads the way with 21.6 percent of people fully vaccinated. On the other end, just 21.8 percent of Somerset County residents have received one shot and only 13.8 percent of those in Androscoggin County have gotten final doses.

Among those 70 and older, 79 percent have received one shot and two-thirds are fully vaccinated. Among those between the ages of 60 and 69, roughly 60 percent have received one dose and 1 in 5 have received final doses. Individuals who receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are included in the final dose numbers.

Among those 70 and older, 79 percent have received one shot and two-thirds are fully vaccinated. Among those between the ages of 60 and 69, roughly 60 percent have received one dose and 1 in 5 have received final doses. Individuals who receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are included in the final dose numbers.

Eligibility opened up to individuals in their 50s this week and all adults will be eligible for a vaccine on April 19.

For next week, MaineHealth is receiving the largest share of vaccine doses — 15,330 — followed by Northern Light Health with 9,960. Smaller amounts are going to public safety entities across the state and outpatient medical groups such as Martin's Point and Intermed. Independent pharmacies, which assisted with efforts early on to vaccinate staff and residents of long-term care facilities, will not get any doses next week.

John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, said their clinics are booked through next Friday and there are an additional 15,000 people on a waiting list.

"We anticipate that even with additional doses, we would continue to work off our wait list," he said, adding that MaineHealth's clinic have more than enough capacity to deliver more shots.

Karen Cashman, a spokeswoman for Northern Light, said availability fluctuates but as of Friday afternoon, there were openings in Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft and Presque Isle for next week. She said staff monitors demand at each site and can shift doses around accordingly.

"It is true that at times we can have less demand for our capacity in the northern region, but overall, more vaccine is allocated to the southern region by the state at this time," Cashman said.

As more vaccines have been administered, the state has slowly dialed back pandemic restrictions. Visitors from all New England states can now travel to Maine without having to quarantine. Bars and tasting rooms in Maine also are eligible to open Friday but must follow the same guidelines as restaurants, including capacity limits and wearing face coverings to and from seats. Additionally, indoor gatherings are now permitted at 50 percent of a building's maximum capacity and outdoors gatherings can reach 75 percent of capacity.