AUGUSTA — With the holidays fast approaching, along with the possibility of more COVID-19 cases, the state logged one of its highest one-day totals of new cases Nov. 17.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said 1,042 new COVID-19 cases had been reported since the previous day.

Along with new cases, hospitalizations have also reached a high; 280 people are now in the hospital with the virus. By comparison, two weeks ago, 212 people were in the hospital with the disease. Right now, he said, 77 people are in intensive care units and 36 are on ventilators.

Out of all COVID patients in the hospital currently, five are under the age of 18 and two are in pediatric intensive care units. The seven-day positivity ratio, he said, has increased to 8.9% from 5.9% two weeks ago.

In response to the sustained high numbers of cases, Gov. Janet Mills announced Nov. 17 that effective immediately, those 18 and older who received their second Pfizer or Moderna shot at least six months ago are now eligible for a booster shot. The shots are free and will be administered wherever COVID-19 vaccines are available. 

People who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are also eligible to receive a booster shot two months after receiving the initial vaccination and mixing and matching of the three vaccines has been approved by federal health authorities.

“If you got the J & J shot two months ago,” Shah said, “you can get the Pfizer or Moderna or J & J for the booster, and similarly if you got the Pfizer or Moderna shot six months ago, you have your choice of which booster you may want to receive.”

Another reason for the loosening of restrictions for boosters, he said, is that evidence shows the effectiveness of the vaccines wanes as time goes on. This is not unique to the COVID-19 vaccines, he said, but happens with other vaccines as well.

When vaccines first became available, Shah said, Maine “leapt out of the gate,” surpassing other states in the high rate of vaccination in its population. Because people got their shots early on, the potential for a drop in effectiveness may be more pronounced in Maine than in other states, he said, which is where booster shots come in.

Booster shots can provide extra support to the immune systems of people who are at least six months out from their second shot. Shah said people should be patient, as pharmacies and vaccine clinics are still pivoting to update their websites with new information about boosters, “which may take a little bit of time.”

The state has the supply and the capacity to administer the additional shots along with the regular COVID-19 inoculations, Shah noted. 

Early numbers show the 5-to-11 age group,  the latest to become eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, is off to a strong start. Shah said 14.6% of that group had received their first dose, which translates to 14,209 kids.

The upcoming weeks following the holiday gatherings are potentially concerning, Shah warned. “It will almost certainly lead to more transmission.”

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services, when asked what additional tools the state has to combat the perpetually rising number of cases in the state, said, “We have the tools, a safe and effective vaccine.”

Lambrew noted that almost all the people currently in ICUs are unvaccinated. “There is one way out of the pandemic, and that is through vaccination,” she said.

State vaccination rates were among the few positive notes from the briefing. Shah said the entire state of Maine is now 71.6% fully vaccinated and 79.5% of the state has received at least a first dose. 

Every day, 8,800 doses are being administered, he said, which includes first, second, booster and pediatric vaccines. That is a 21% increase in volume from last week.

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