Maine reported 20 new deaths caused by COVID-19 on Tuesday, surpassing the previous high for one day partly because the total included deaths that occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend but weren’t reported.
There have now been 214 deaths in Maine. The previous high for a one-day increase was 12 deaths on Nov. 24.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a tweet that Tuesday is a “difficult day” for Maine.
“I’d like to offer our deepest condolences to the families, friends, and communities of each of these people. Their losses are shared by all of us as a state,” Shah said.
Gov. Janet Mills also announced Tuesday that she will quarantine at the Blaine House until Dec. 12 because she was potentially exposed to COVID-19 by a member of her security detail.
The governor said she was not displaying any symptoms and will continue to fulfill her duties, remaining in touch with her staff and Cabinet virtually.
Half of the newly reported deaths occurred in Androscoggin County. Three deaths were reported in both Penobscot and York counties, and one death each in Washington, Piscataquis, Oxford, Kennebec and Knox counties. There were no new deaths in Cumberland County, the Maine CDC said.
Robert Long, the agency’s spokesman, said the 20 deaths did not happen in one day but had occurred since Nov. 16. Long said over the long weekend, there were delays in the process the Maine CDC uses to confirm that deaths are caused by COVID-19. Those delays prevented the agency from logging some of the deaths from the holiday weekend in the official records until Tuesday. Most of the deaths occurred between Nov. 24-30, with one death logged on Nov. 16 that was not confirmed until Tuesday.
Dr. David Seder, who treats some of Maine’ most critically ill COVID-19 patients at Maine Medical Center in Portland, said in an interview Tuesday to expect a “tough winter.” Even though treatments have improved, and patients are more likely to survive the disease when compared to the spring, COVID-19 is still a dangerous and deadly disease.
Seder said about 30 percent of patients who end up in intensive care at Maine Med will die of COVID-19. He said it’s not only difficult for patients and families, but also doctors and nurses to see so many people take their last breaths.
“Some patients with coronavirus look me in the eye and they know this is the beginning of the end,” Seder said, as he described the process of putting patients who can’t breathe on their own on mechanical ventilators. “I give them sedative drugs, it puts them to sleep, they go on life support and some go on to die.”
Conversations between patients and health care workers are difficult because doctors and nurses are suited up in protective gear and can’t communicate as well.
“They feel lonely and disconnected from the world,” Seder said of his patients.
The surge in deaths comes as public health experts plead with the public to take precautions – such as wearing masks, keeping social distance and avoiding gatherings – to curtail transmission of the virus while waiting for vaccines to become widely available.
If two vaccine candidates are approved by the FDA in the coming weeks, the first shipment of vaccines would be expected to arrive by mid-December. Maine’s initial shipment could be about 12,000 doses – with much larger quantities of vaccines rolled out in 2021. The U.S. CDC reported on Tuesday that most health care workers in the nation will be able to get first doses of the vaccine within three weeks of the first distribution. Still, the vaccine is not expected to be widespread until spring at the earliest.
Eight of the 10 deaths in Androscoggin County are linked to outbreaks at long-term care centers, including six to Clover Health Care in Auburn and two to Russell Park Rehabilitation & Living Center in Lewiston, the Maine CDC said.
Clover Health Care has reported 112 COVID-19 cases involving 40 staff and 72 residents. The facility employs 250 people and is licensed for 259 residents, but is operating below capacity, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. The outbreak has been largely centered in the nursing home section.
“Our employees are amazing. They keep coming in. They’re true heroes,” said Sarah O’Sullivan, Clover Health Care corporate spokesperson.
She said Clover has partnered with its sister facilities (owned by the same corporation) to bring in needed staff.
Among the 20 deaths reported Tuesday were 15 men and five women, with one person in their 60s, six in their 70s, nine in their 80s and four in their 90s.
Androscoggin County has the highest rate of active cases per 10,000 population in Maine, with 38.5, followed by 25.8 in Franklin County. York County has 19.6 cases per 10,000 population, Penobscot County’s rate is 18.7, followed by 17.7 in Cumberland County. The lowest rate is 6.9 per 10,000 population in Aroostook County.
Also on Tuesday, the state reported 219 new cases of COVID-19, continuing a trend in which the daily new case count has regularly exceeded 200 since the pandemic deepened in November.
Public health experts have warned that the fall surge in cases will also lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. On Tuesday, 138 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine, including 46 in critical care and 19 on a ventilator, Shah said in a tweet.
Maine’s seven-day average of daily new cases was 168.9, compared to 207.3 a week ago and 73.6 a month ago.
Also on Tuesday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services closed its Sanford office after one employee tested positive for COVID-19. The office will reopen as soon as possible, according to a news release.
On Monday, Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said the state is reviewing whether to continue a 9 p.m. curfew for the state’s hospitality industry, including restaurants, casinos, movie theaters and tasting rooms. The curfew began Nov. 20 and is set to expire Sunday.
Lambrew said the state is evaluating the effectiveness of the curfew to determine whether it should continue.
Lambrew also said that the state is discussing whether Maine’s winter high school sports, such as basketball, ice hockey, swimming and indoor track, can begin practices Dec. 14 or whether the season should be delayed. She noted that other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have pushed off winter sports until January as virus cases worsen.
Lambrew previously said that state decisions about high school sports also will apply to community sports, such as AAU basketball, and youth and club ice hockey.
As the state grapples with rising cases, a renewed effort is underway in Congress to pass a new COVID-19 relief measure. Maine’s U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, are part of a bipartisan group of senators and representatives that announced a $908 billion proposal Tuesday morning. Congress passed COVID-19 relief in the spring, but the $1.25 billion Maine received under the CARES Act has been largely committed.
Sun Journal Staff Writer Lindsay Tice contributed to this story.