A masked man walks by a sign outside of Bagel Central on Central Street in Bangor on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The number of patients hospitalized with the coronavirus in Maine hit its lowest level in nearly three months on Thursday, as the early round of vaccinations has likely slowed the spread of the virus in long-term care facilities.

The continued decline in hospitalizations comes as new virus cases have dropped by three-quarters after a mid-January peak. The national vaccination campaign has also accelerated, with the weekly number of first doses administered in Maine up about 70 percent compared to a month ago.

The improving metrics were likely the result of several factors, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, including fewer gatherings after the holidays ended. Just shy of 14 percent of Mainers have received one vaccine dose, while 6 percent have received second doses, well short of the 30 or 40 percent vaccination rate experts say would be needed to have a substantial effect on transmission, Shah said.

But he said vaccinations are likely at least partially responsible for the decrease in outbreaks at long-term care facilities, which were part of the first phase of the state’s vaccine rollout and have accounted for more than half of virus deaths in Maine.

“They haven’t made outbreaks go away, but they have come down and that is a welcome sign,” Shah said. “It speaks to the power and the promise of these vaccines.”

The number of patients hospitalized with the virus dropped to 89 on Thursday, the lowest total since Nov. 21. At Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, only nine patients were hospitalized with the virus as of Thursday, down from 25 a month ago and more than 50 in late December.

The decrease in hospitalizations mirrors an even sharper drop in cases over the past month. The seven-day average of new infections sat at 150 as of Thursday after peaking at 625 last month. The rate of positive tests was 1.6 percent, down from 5.3 percent one month ago, according to Maine CDC data.

Those figures, though much improved, still suggest the virus in Maine remains more severe than it was most of last year. As Maine was among the few states able to key the virus at bay during the summer and early fall of 2020, the seven-day average of new cases did not surpass 150 until the first week of November. The positivity rate dropped below 0.5 percent last fall as well, according to state data.

The 19 virus deaths already reported in February exceed totals from six of the pandemic’s first eight months. But deaths are still down sharply compared to January, which was the deadliest month of the pandemic in Maine so far with 211 deaths.

Health officials have raised concerns that new strains of the virus, including the United Kingdom variant first detected in Maine last week, could lead to a resurgence. But vaccinations are also a tool that could hinder the spread of variants, Shah said. More than 30,000 first doses were administered over the past seven days, up from about 17,500 weekly first doses a month ago.

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