Maine has just turned the page on its darkest month yet in the coronavirus pandemic, in which a long-dreaded second wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths finally washed over the state.
The state recorded almost half of its total confirmed coronavirus cases — 5,320 infections, or 44.4 percent — just in November, as the virus spread across all 16 counties and colder weather apparently motivated more people to gather indoors without face masks or proper social distancing.
The state also saw 67 deaths from COVID-19 just during November, which made it the deadliest month in the pandemic and was more than the combined totals from June through October.
In a reversal from early in the pandemic, Cumberland County, Maine’s most populous county that has seen the most cumulative deaths and cases of any county, recorded just one death last month. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent of those who died last month were residents of five counties that account for less than half of Maine’s population: Androscoggin, Somerset, York, Penobscot and Kennebec. Two of Maine’s smallest, most rural counties — Washington and Piscataquis — had not recorded any coronavirus-related deaths before November.
While Maine is still seeing lower rates of daily infections and deaths than almost every other state, its trends are nevertheless grim. The fall surge arrived sooner than many health officials would have liked, and the new infections that are being detected now will likely lead to more hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks. December also brings the possibility that more people will see friends and relatives during the holidays, seeding new outbreaks along the way.
Roughly half of the November deaths were among the residents of nursing homes, which are facing a fresh set of outbreaks this fall after a reprieve during the summer, when the statewide prevalence of the virus fell. More than a dozen of those nursing home deaths have come just in the last week, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least one Maine hospital worker also died from the coronavirus during the November wave, as record high numbers of COVID-19 patients sought acute medical care and the state began considering whether to open auxiliary hospitals in two of its biggest cities — as it initially planned last spring but never needed to do.
November did bring a few glad tidings, in the form of promising results for vaccine candidates that could eventually help turn back the worldwide health crisis.
Maine is now racing to clear the logistical hurdles for distributing the vaccines, particularly in more remote areas that lack the super-cold storage capacity for one of the vaccine candidates. Given the limited availability, the vaccines would initially be prioritized for high-risk groups such as health care workers and residents of congregate living settings such as nursing homes.
But just as in the rest of the country, one of the greatest challenges of the new surge is how widespread the virus has become across every corner of Maine, making it more difficult to contain. All of Maine’s 16 counties are now regularly seeing new cases, after many of them went months without recording more than one or two a week while the virus was most concentrated in southern Maine.
The shift has been starkest in Somerset County, which saw fewer than three dozen confirmed coronavirus infections through the middle of the summer, but now has some of the state’s highest rates of new infections and deaths.
From Oct. 29 to Nov. 26, Somerset and Androscoggin counties recorded 53 and 55 new cases per 10,000 residents, respectively. All other Maine counties recorded fewer than 44 new cases per 10,000 during that same time.
Somerset County recorded 12 coronavirus deaths during November, giving it the highest death rate — 0.24 deaths per 1,000 residents — in the whole state. The statewide death rate for the month was 0.05 deaths per 1,000 residents, and Androscoggin County had the second-highest rate, with 0.15 deaths per 1,000 residents.