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AUGUSTA, Maine — Coronavirus hospitalizations in Maine slowed over the past week, potentially signaling that the state has passed a peak, but public health experts say that continued social distancing measures are still necessary to avoid a second wave.
As of Tuesday, there were 40 coronavirus patients hospitalized in Maine, down from 58 the week before. Since the outbreak began, 139 patients have been hospitalized at some point. Statewide, there were 15 new hospitalizations over the past week, compared to 25 the week before that and 36 two weeks previously.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged the recent plateau in cases but cautioned that hospitalization numbers were sensitive. He said the agency is still working with hospitals to prepare for a surge in patients if infected individuals currently living in long term care facilities need to be transferred. About a fifth of coronavirus cases in Maine are associated with nursing homes or other long term care facilities.
The drop is a positive sign for the state’s hospital capacity. Early in the outbreak, several models predicted that, absent social distancing measures, Maine could see a surge in hospitalizations that might overwhelm the state’s medical system. That scenario now looks unlikely.
Although epidemiological models do not account for specific characteristics of the coronavirus outbreak in Maine, several models from outside researchers suggest that the state might have already hit its hospitalization peak. A model from researchers at the University of Washington, one of several used by the Maine CDC, suggests that the state needed the greatest number of hospital beds sometime between April 11 and April 21.
A different model from the University of Pennsylvania likewise suggests hospitalizations in Maine will continue to decline, while a model from the University of Texas predicts that daily deaths in the state may not drop for two weeks though they are also unlikely to accelerate.
While Maine was one of the last states to report a coronavirus case last month, is not alone in witnessing the apparent slowing of the virus. Several other states, including the hotspot of New York, have also seen a decline in new hospitalizations over the past week after weeks of intense social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Hospitalizations are one tool public health experts look at to estimate the prevalence of cases in a community because hospitalization counts are less dependent on the level of testing. The drop in hospitalizations could signal that the disease is spreading less in Maine, but there were still 409 current cases of the virus in the state as of Tuesday, according to CDC data.
Shah has repeatedly said that the number of confirmed cases in the state is just the “tip of the iceberg” given national and state limitations on testing and the potential for some people infected with the virus to be asymptomatic.
That means a drop in hospitalizations does not signal that Maine is ready to significantly relax restrictions on business and travel. Models suggesting the decline will continue are based on the assumption that current social distancing measures will stay in place. Public health experts, including Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have warned that prematurely lifting such measures could lead to a resurgence of the virus.
Shah warned on Tuesday that relieving restrictions too soon could worsen the outbreak, especially among vulnerable populations such as the residents of long term care facilities.
“We know that if we take our foot off the gas too soon, the possibility of a secondary spike in cases is high,” he said.