Younger Mainers still driving up COVID-19 numbers

Kevin Miller, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·7 min read

Apr. 2—People younger than 30 account for a growing share of new COVID-19 cases in Maine, as a new surge is driving infections back up.

The surge comes as inoculations of the 50-plus age group are rapidly expanding, and with eligibility for all Mainers age 16 and older beginning next Wednesday.

By the end of March, people below age 30 accounted for 34.6 percent of all COVID-19 cases diagnosed in Maine during the past 13 months. That is up slightly from 33.8 percent two weeks earlier and is a roughly 5 percent increase over the share that the under-30 crowd accounted for at the beginning of the year.

The age distribution of cases has changed dramatically in one year. On March 31, 2020, people below age 30 accounted for only 11.7 percent of all Maine cases, while those age 60 or older accounted for 44.2 percent.

Mainers in their 20s now account for 18.2 percent of all positive cases since the pandemic began. That's the highest percentage of positive cases among all age groups. However, the most dramatic increase in case numbers in the first three months of 2021 came among those under age 20.

By Jan. 1, there had been 3,515 cases among those under 20. By March 31, that number had risen to 8,392 cases. That's a 139 percent increase. The next largest jump, of 104 percent, was among Mainers in their 20s, followed close behind by individuals in their 40s.

Case rates among residents in their 70s and 80s grew the slowest — by 78 and 63 percent, respectively — during the first three months of the year, reflecting the state's efforts to vaccinate those two age groups during that time. While Mainers age 70 or older account for roughly 11 percent of COVID-19 cases to date in the state, they comprise 85 percent of all deaths.

Case numbers are rising in Maine — and the average age of infected individuals skewing younger — despite a vaccination campaign that has reached roughly one-third of the state's residents.

On Friday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 402 additional cases of COVID-19, marking the first time since February 2 that the total number of cases jumped by more than 400. It was the 11th time in 16 days that the single-day case count increased by 200 or more.

The bulk of the 402 new cases date back to Sunday but were added to Friday's totals as Maine CDC epidemiologists work their way through a backlog of positive test results reported to the agency. Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said 40 of the 402 new positive cases were reported on Thursday. But he said case numbers for that day, and previous days, could also increase as epidemiologists review reports to confirm they are new cases and not repeated positive results of people who have already been diagnosed with COVID-19.

"We are back in a situation in which a sustained increase in the number of positive test results means that it is taking between 24 and 48 hours to review incoming results, not the 24 hours or less that had been the norm other than during the spike from late November to early January," Long said.

With the 402 new infections, Maine's seven-day rolling average of new cases jumped to 253, up from 198 a week earlier and an average of 137 daily cases for the week ending February 20. The state's peak, seven-day average of 624 occurred on January 15.

The Maine CDC also reported on additional death on Friday afternoon, identified as a many over age 80 from York County.

Public health officials in Maine and across the country have raised concerns about the potential for another surge in COVID-19 cases threatening progress in controlling the deadly disease with vaccinations. Maine set a new record of shots administered on Thursday — 21,829 shots — for the second day in a row, with that rate likely to increase next week as the state expands eligibility to every over age 16.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, also noted that the state's positive test rate is also increasing in another potential sign that the virus is spreading more rapidly. While the daily, combined positivity rate for both molecular-based and antigen tests have ranged from a high of 4.9 percent to a low of 1.8 over the past two weeks, the line is trending upward. Friday's combined positive rate was 3.5 percent.

"Broader eligibility is coming next week," Shah said in a tweet. "Please, get your shot. We talk a lot about the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are our vehicle out of that tunnel."

To date, there have been 744 deaths linked to COVID-19 in the state and the Maine CDC has tracked a total of 51,189 confirmed or probable cases of the viral disease since March 2020.

Maine's vaccination campaign is gaining momentum, however, and is expected to accelerate even faster next week thanks to potentially large increases in shipments of doses from the federal government.

As of Friday morning, 435,700 individuals — or 32.4 percent of Maine residents — had received at least one dose of vaccine while second or final shots had been administered to 277,098 individuals, representing 20.6 percent of the population.

On Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills expanded Maine's eligibility window to all state residents age 16 and older starting on April 7. The decision means that an estimated 470,000 Mainers will be eligible to receive a shot 12 days earlier than previously planned, although Mills urged residents to be patient with health care providers as they attempt to reserve appointments.

York, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties continue to have the highest per capita infection rates in the state, with York's rate standing at 524 cases for every 10,000 residents. Waldo County has the lowest case rate at 181 confirmed or probable infections per 10,000 residents.

Maine CDC data shows that more rural counties experienced the largest increases in cases percentage-wise during the month of March, however.

The total number of cases in Piscataquis County, which has consistently had among the lowest infection rates, rose by 34 percent between March 1 and 31 while Knox and Waldo counties saw increases of 24 and 20 percent, respectively. Kennebec, Penobscot and Hancock counties all also experienced increases of more than 15 percent during March.

Hospitalizations remain relatively steady in Maine, with 75 hospitalized statewide as of Friday morning and 25 of those in critical care beds. The rate of new deaths from COVID-19 in Maine has dropped significantly, however, as vaccinations increase among individuals age 70 or older. As of Friday, 81.5 percent of the roughly 191,000 individuals in that age group had received at least a first dose of vaccine and 74.3 percent had received all necessary doses.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the seven-day average of new cases nationally continues to rise and surpassed 62,000 as of Friday. Hospitalizations are also rising, Walensky said, even as the country launches an unprecedented vaccination campaign.

"These data continue to be clear: despite the good news on the vaccination front, we cannot yet afford to relax the prevention strategies," Walensky said during a Friday briefing of the White House COVID-19 Response Team. "We must continue the practices of mitigation strategies that we know work, like wearing a mask and physical distancing, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to see the end of this pandemic. This is a pivotal moment for our country."