Watch briefing: Daily cases exceed 200 again in Maine; 2 additional deaths reported

Maine health officials reported 224 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and two more deaths.

It’s the 15th time in the last 17 days that daily cases have topped 150 and the 5th time in the last 11 days that cases have gone over 200. The 7-day average for daily cases is now 188, up from just 32 one month ago.

The check in area for the Covid testing site at the Portland Jetport Thursday, Nov. 12. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

There have now been 26 deaths so far this month, the third most of any month after April (51) and May (37). Only six people died in October.

As of Friday, 90 individuals were hospitalized with COVID-19 — the highest total since the pandemic began. More than half, 49, were in critical care and 12 were on a ventilator. Exactly one month ago, just nine people were hospitalized.

Hospitals have begun preparing for more patients and have the ability to convert beds to critical care, but officials are increasingly concerned that if the current trend worsens it could risk overwhelming the health care system.

The impact on hospitals already is being felt. MaineHealth confirmed Friday that at least three staff members at Maine Medical Center’s cardiothoracic ICU tested positive for COVID-19 Monday, resulting in all elective surgical procedures that rely on the unit to be postponed while other staff members are tested and retested.

MaineHealth spokesman John Porter said the staff members were presumed to have been exposed in the community while off-duty.

“At the moment, people need to be hyper-vigilant because it’s everywhere,” he said.

The unit — which handles post-operative chest surgery patients — is still treating emergency and emergent cases.

Gov. Janet Mills on Friday updated the state’s color-coded system for schools and moved York County in the yellow category, joining Androscoggin, Franklin, Somerset and Washington counties. York had been designated as yellow back in September, then moved to green last month.

A yellow categorization means elevated risk and advises schools to consider additional precautions such as hybrid learning models or reducing the number of people in schools in classrooms. Many schools, even those in counties with green designations, already are taking extra safety measures.

Knox County, which had been categorized as yellow, moved back to green since its per capita case rate dipped below the state average. Cumberland, Hancock and Kennebec remain green but will be closely monitored. All other counties are classified as green.

Since public K-12 schools reopened, there have 259 confirmed or probable cases among students or staff, according to data from the Maine Department of Education. As of Friday, there were 17 schools with open outbreaks, including three with more than five cases — Guy Rowe Elementary in Norway, Farrington Elementary School in Augusta and Thornton Academy in Saco.

In addition to the cases, there have been hundreds, even thousands, of students and teachers who have been forced to quarantine because of possible exposure.

Also Friday, Mills announced that she was dedicating an additional $6.2 million from the state’s federal coronavirus relief funds to Maine Housing’s COVID-19 Rental Relief Program. It will allow the program to extend through December for renters who cannot afford to pay their rent.

“I join my fellow governors of both parties nationwide in calling on the U.S. Senate and the president to pass desperately needed relief for Maine families struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic,” Mills said in a statement. “In the meantime, I will do all I can to keep people secure in their homes this holiday season.”

On Thursday, Mills put in place a 9 p.m. curfew for all restaurants, movie theaters, tasting rooms and casinos — the latest attempt by her administration to curb what has now been sustained spread over the last month. The limited hours run through Dec. 6.

Mills previously reduced the limit on indoor gatherings, strengthened the state’s mask mandate for public places and pushed back indefinitely the opening of bars. The governor also warned Thursday that “other steps may be necessary in the coming weeks if we do not get this virus under control.”

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah is scheduled to brief the media Friday afternoon.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 9,958 confirmed or probable cases in Maine, 628 people have been hospitalized at some point and 173 people have died. The number of active cases Friday climbed to 2,195, which is 35 more than Thursday and more than triple the number this time last month (637). New cases were reported in every county except Sagadahoc, led by York County (44), Cumberland County (43) and Androscoggin County (40).

There are active cases in all 16 counties, and 13 counties in Maine have high or substantial community transmission, which is defined as a new case rate greater than or equal to 16 per 10,000 people over the last 28 days. That’s up from five counties with high transmission just two weeks ago.

Somerset County has the highest rate – 47.94 cases per 10,000 people, followed by Washington County at 45.25 cases.

Two counties – Piscataquis and Sagadahoc – are seeing moderate community transmission, which is defined as a new case rate greater than or equal to eight but less than 16 per 10,000 people.

Only Aroostook County has low or no community transmission, defined as a new case rate of less than eight per 10,000 people. Its rate is 4.62 cases per 10,000 people.

Maine has not been alone in the recent surge. Nearly every other state has seen dramatic increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths as well. According to the COVID Tracking project, there were more than 183,000 new cases Thursday across the country and 81,000 people currently hospitalized. Both were records. There also were 1,971 deaths, the highest daily total since May 7.

Total cases in the United States have gone over 11 million and deaths have eclipsed 250,000.

Many states have imposed restrictions in recent days, including closing restaurants to in-person dining and placing limits on private gatherings, but they have avoided stay-at-home orders for now. New Hampshire on Thursday became the last New England state to put in place a mask mandate in public areas.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued recommendations Thursday urging people not to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this story

This story will be updated.

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