Coronavirus cases in Maine have declined for two weeks, suggesting the end of a holiday surge, but a top state health official warned a resurgence is possible as virus levels remain higher than last fall and more contagious strains of the virus circulate elsewhere.
Another 417 virus cases were reported in Maine on Tuesday, bringing the seven-day average of new cases to 323, down from 493 one week ago and 564 a week before that. Hospitalizations are also down about a quarter from a mid-January peak.
Those improving trends come as Maine’s vaccine rollout has continued steadily, though still slower than health officials would have liked, and fears remain about new strains of the virus detected in other states that have shown to be more transmissible. It also comes as reported deaths in January tied the December high of 194, all but assuring the first month of 2021 was Maine’s deadliest of the pandemic thus far, as reported deaths can lag by weeks.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday there was “no doubt” that key metrics were trending in the right direction. But he said he remains concerned that the improvement would be a “pause, rather than a stop” if Mainers became complacent due to the decline or if new strains of the virus are detected here.
The drop in cases over the past two weeks mirrors a nationwide decline that began slightly earlier. It marks the first sustained drop in Maine since October, when the state saw a resurgence in cases after keeping the virus largely at bay over the summer, and comes as testing levels have remained high, with more than 80,000 tests conducted over the past week compared to about 65,000 per week in December, according to Maine CDC data.
The combination of increased testing and declining cases has led other key metrics to improve, with the weekly positivity rate for viral tests dropping to 3.2 percent Tuesday after surpassing 6 percent in early January. But that figure also shows how much worse pandemic conditions remain compared to last fall, when the comparable rate dropped below 1 percent.
The seven-day average of new cases, though down substantially from a few weeks ago, likewise remains about 10 times that of Maine’s daily case count in the summer. The number of patients hospitalized with the virus is still higher than any day prior to Dec. 3.
The greater spread of the virus compared to last summer and fall makes Maine more vulnerable to a resurgence even with metrics trending in the right direction. Shah pointed to more contagious strains of the virus as well as complacency amid lower case counts and gatherings due to cold weather as factors that could still reverse the recent positive trends.
State economic restrictions have been largely unchanged over the last few months, though Gov. Janet Mills lifted a 9 p.m. business curfew effective Monday. Vaccines provide the state with another tool to slow the spread of the virus, though the rollout has been limited by federal supply constraints.
As of Tuesday, just over 40,000 people — or 3 percent of Maine’s population — had received both doses of the vaccine. Another 77,000 had received only the first dose. They could serve as a buffer if more transmissible variants of the virus arrive in Maine, as early data have shown that the vaccines remain effective against the new strains.
“Right now, we are in a race to see whether we can out-vaccinate the virus,” Shah said. “If we can keep our vaccine rates in Maine as high as they have been, we have got a shot at outrunning the virus, but if these new variants come into the picture, that becomes something that could delay our progress.”