Masks are once again recommended when indoors in eight of 16 counties as hospitalizations climb and Maine records the highest infection rate in the nation.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its county-level risk assessments late Thursday and designated Cumberland County, the midcoast region and most of northern Maine as being at high risk of COVID-19 spread and potentially experiencing strain on local hospitals. In counties designated as high risk, the federal agency recommends that everyone wear masks when indoors in public spaces.
The counties designated as high-risk are Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Hancock, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Aroostook.
Seven counties are now designated as medium risk, which means masks are recommended for people who are older or have underlying medical conditions. Those counties include York, Kennebec, Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Waldo and Washington.
Androscoggin County retained its low-risk designation, which means the U.S. CDC does not formally recommend mask wearing.
The risk assessments are based on the number of new infections reported in the last seven days, new COVID-19 hospital admissions and the percent of staffed inpatient beds in use by COVID-19 patients.
The change in risk assessments follows a steep rise in cases in Maine and the Northeast resulting from the emergence of three omicron subvariants, each of which is more contagious than the omicron strain that caused the record surge of cases over the winter. The omicron BA.2 subvariant and two closely related subvariants – BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 – now account for 80 percent of the new infections in Maine, according to data released by the state.
Maine is lagging behind other Northeast states and is experiencing the latest surge a couple of weeks after more populated states to the south.
The number of patients in Maine hospitals with COVID-19 climbed to 203 as of Friday morning, a 100 percent increase from two weeks ago. Of those patients, 35 are intensive care and four are on ventilators.
The state also reported 930 new cases on Friday and 12 additional deaths. The deaths reported by the state are not all within the previous 24 hours. Maine health officials review death certificates and periodically add deaths that were not counted weeks or even months ago.
As of Friday, Maine had reported 400.8 new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days, nearly three times higher than the national average of 136.6 cases, according to the U.S. CDC. Maine is followed by Rhode Island, Vermont and New York.
The surge in Maine’s COVID cases is consistent around the state, and there is no specific region showing a significantly higher rate of COVID than any other, according to MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals.
With exceptions, there are two major groups of people admitted to hospitals specifically because of COVID, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for the MaineHealth and former state CDC director. Those are older, vaccinated people and younger, unvaccinated people.
Public health officials including Mills have continued to encourage Maine residents to protect themselves from contracting COVID by masking, getting vaccinated and boosted, choosing to gather outdoors when possible and testing regularly.
This story will be updated.