Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will use an automated system to power through a massive backlog of positive COVID-19 cases in a step that will correct long-flawed counts but lead to artificially inflated counts this week, state officials said Monday.

The improved system for counting tests comes while several key metrics indicate the virus has begun to recede here after surging to record levels in January. But COVID-19 hospitalizations, one statistic used to measure the incidence of severe disease, still remained higher as of Monday than they were any time prior to November 2021.

The state had reported artificially low case numbers over the past few weeks because the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention struggled to keep up with positive tests following the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant. The backlog climbed as high as 58,000 in early February, with the agency announcing plans to automate parts of its investigation process in order to update case numbers more quickly.

That automation began Monday and will lead to a sharp increase in daily case numbers as the agency resumes reporting over the next few days, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said Monday. That will reflect backlogged cases, not people infected in recent days. As of last week, the state was still reporting a backlog of 53,000 positive tests.

Shah pointed to COVID-19 hospitalization and deaths data and wastewater testing as a better measure of virus trends. The number of patients hospitalized with the virus in Maine dropped to 275 on Monday. The state’s wastewater program still only has a few weeks of data, although the majority of test sites in the state’s latest report show a drop in virus concentration since January.

Maine’s backlog in registering cases caused problems last month as the federal formula for allocating scarce monoclonal antibodies depended in part on the number of reported cases. The state eventually received more doses.