AUGUSTA — People under 20 years old account for nearly half of the 667 new COVID-19 cases reported by the state Tuesday, Sept. 14, a striking shift from the early days of the pandemic and a significant increase from earlier this summer.

Maine’s education commissioner told lawmakers Tuesday that schools are struggling with surge, and have so far reported nearly 1,000 cases in the first weeks of classes.

“Schools are feeling very overwhelmed, nervous, disappointed and discouraged,” Pender Makin told members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

A total of 319 new cases were reported Tuesday among Maine residents younger than 20, representing a record 48% of all new cases. Just one month ago, people younger than 20 accounted for 17.5% of the state’s new cases.

One year ago, people under 20 accounted for less than 1% of all COVID-19 cases in Maine during the pandemic. Now, they account for about 20% of cases since the pandemic began.

The second largest group of cases reported Tuesday — 13% — was among people in their 20s. People over 70 years old accounted for 8% of new cases.

The shift appears to be fueled both by the more contagious delta variant and the fact that there is no vaccine available for children 12 or younger. Health officials have described the surge of cases in Maine and nationwide in recent weeks as a pandemic of the unvaccinated, who make up the vast majority of severe cases now filling hospitals.

A vaccine could be approved for younger children as soon as late October or November. Meanwhile, 74.7% of Mainers over age 20 have been fully vaccinated and 56% of people between 12 and 19 years of age have been fully vaccinated.

The increase in cases among young people also comes a few weeks into a new school year. Schools around Maine have seen a sharp increase in cases with close to 1,000 cases in schools reported so far for the month of September. On Monday the Department of Education received 160 reports of COVID-19 in school settings, Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin told lawmakers during a briefing Tuesday.

The case surge has been a strain for schools, Makin said. “Maybe some of you are feeling the same way because I think we were all looking forward to a much brighter start to the school year. People are just overwhelmed with, ‘What’s with all the COVID?’”

Makin said there are a few reasons schools are seeing so many cases, including that there are twice as many people in buildings this year given that all schools opened for full in-person learning rather than hybrid learning, and because some schools have started regular testing through the state’s pooled testing program.

She said it appears the case load in schools reflects high numbers of cases in the community, but the timing so close to the start of school has also made it hard to understand whether in-school spread is happening. “There hasn’t even been time in the school year for us to hypothesize around whether or not the large number of cases are indicative of in-school spread,” Makin said.

Along with 667 new cases of COVID-19 over a three-day period, the state also reported eight additional deaths Tuesday.

If health officials are keeping up with test reports and there is not a backlog of cases to verify and report this week, the numbers reported on Tuesday would represent a modest decline in cases over the weekend. But the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention over the last few weeks has needed to clear backlogs from weekend cases because there have been so many positive test results coming in. It was not immediately clear on Tuesday if there would be a backlog this week.

The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 441.1 on Tuesday, compared to 359 a week ago and 173.7 a month ago.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 81,177 cases of COVID-19, and 969 deaths.

The recent surge in cases is due to the delta variant sweeping through unvaccinated populations across the country. Nearly 100% of people in hospital intensive care units on some days — and 70% to 75% of all those hospitalized — are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Maine CDC has said.

In schools, Makin told lawmakers Tuesday, it is hard to know how sick students are getting because of privacy restrictions. But she said the state “is not looking at any kind of wholesale school shut-downs” and the department continues to believe in-person learning can take place safely with the proper health protocols in place.

“Unfortunately, we had this very extraordinary, unanticipated spike in COVID collide with the very opening days of school,” Makin said. “I think you’re going to see a readjustment and people are going to settle into realizing we are living with COVID for a while. It’s not a thing where we’re going to walk away and say, ‘Mission accomplished.’ We need to learn how to reasonably live in an environment where a pretty dangerous, often deadly disease is out there in our mix.”

Meanwhile, Maine continues to have high rates of hospitalizations, and on Monday broke a record of the number of people needing mechanical ventilators to breathe, with 40 in Maine hospitals on ventilators. On Monday, there were 194 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 67 in critical care.

Maine’s hospital executives have pleaded with eligible people who have not yet gotten their shots to do so to save hospital capacity. MaineHealth, the Maine’s largest health care network with Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other hospitals in the state, announced last week that it was postponing some elective surgeries to maintain capacity for COVID-19 patients. Examples of postponed surgeries include knee and hip replacements, and other surgeries that can safely wait.

In addition to encouraging people to get vaccinated, federal and state governments are increasingly mandating COVID-19 vaccination.

President Biden last week introduced new vaccine mandates that will require employers with 100 or more workers to have their employees get immunized or tested weekly for COVID-19, among other new vaccine requirements. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in news reports on Monday that he supported vaccination requirements for air travel.

Despite recent increases in case counts, Maine’s 26.3 cases per 100,000 residents is below the national average of 44 per 100,000. Connecticut has the lowest case rate in the nation at 15.2 per 100,000, while West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee have the worst rates in the nation, with each more than 90 cases per capita.


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