Staff return to Stillwater Health Care nursing home in Bangor on April 21. A nurse from an outside agency who worked at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Maine’s long-term care facilities have sharply declined in recent weeks, reflecting a drop in new cases statewide as staff and residents have received COVID-19 vaccinations.

The number of ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Maine nursing homes and assisted living facilities dropped from 52 to 11 between Feb. 5 and 23, a 78 percent drop, according to the most recent available data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Long-term care facilities have been some of the locations hardest hit by COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, both in Maine and across the country, as their residents are particularly susceptible to complications from the disease and the close quarters in which they live allows the virus to quickly spread.

Nursing home residents are the majority of those who have died from the virus in Maine.

Three new virus outbreaks were reported at nursing homes between Feb. 5 and 23 while numerous others came to an end. The number of new outbreaks was down from 12 in the previous 19-day period. The Maine CDC closes outbreaks after a prolonged period without a new positive case among residents or staff.

The drop comes as coronavirus cases have declined in Maine since reaching a peak in mid-January. Nursing home outbreaks are often emblematic of how actively the virus is spreading in the communities where they’re located, so a drop in new outbreaks reflects an overall drop in the virus’ transmission. Outbreaks often begin after staff members bring in the virus after picking it up outside of work.

Numerous residents and staff members of long-term care facilities have also been fully vaccinated in recent weeks. Staff and residents were part of the first group of people in Maine eligible to receive the vaccines in December.

The drop in new outbreaks in Maine tracks a national decline in new COVID-19 cases at nursing homes. New COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents had declined 82 percent between Dec. 20, when new cases reached their peak, and the beginning of February, according to a report from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living released on Tuesday. Deaths have fallen 63 percent during that same time.

Some 366 people had died in outbreaks at Maine long-term care facilities as of Feb. 23. That death toll made up 54 percent of the state’s 677 virus deaths by that time.

Despite the decline, the risk of new outbreaks continues. While most residents have been willing to get vaccinated, many nursing home staff have declined. Over a quarter of long-term care facilities surveyed by the Maine Medical Directors Association said in January that less than half their staffers were willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some long-term care facilities nationwide require that all staff be vaccinated, a move that has divided the industry and raised legal questions.

Nursing home outbreaks were behind the state’s surging case numbers during the early months of the pandemic last year, with outbreaks at the Maine Veterans’ Homes facility in Scarborough and Tall Pines Healthcare in Belfast both killing 13.

Nursing home outbreaks then picked up again as cases began rising in November. Maine has seen some of its largest nursing home outbreaks since that second surge — which is subsiding now — began.

An outbreak at Clover Health Care in Auburn, for example, infected 147 and killed 12 between Nov. 12 and Feb. 15 while an outbreak at Orono Commons infected 105 and killed 12 between Dec. 31 and Feb. 23.

The deadliest nursing home outbreak to date also ended over the past month, with the CDC closing an outbreak at Seal Rock Healthcare in Saco that infected 108 and killed 22 on Feb. 8. Seal Rock’s winter outbreak was actually the third that facility had seen during the pandemic.