School nurse Missy Gendron unpacks pooled COVID-19 testing materials on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at Lewiston High School. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s COVID-19 case numbers will likely take a dip in the coming days due to an expected decline in testing during the holidays, but there is little reason to expect a real decline in infections as more people travel and gather.

Infection levels have reached new highs in the past few weeks, with the seven-day average of new daily cases nearing 700. A record 314 patients were hospitalized with the virus on Wednesday. Hospitals in western Maine — the least vaccinated part of the state — reached capacity.

The surge comes ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, which is likely to lead to a temporary decline in reported cases. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention does not report case numbers for weekends or holidays. Most testing locations are also closed for holidays, leading to fewer cases for the state to report in the days after, and people who get regularly tested for COVID-19 at school or work may not get tested while on vacation or visiting family.

Maine has seen this before. Going into Thanksgiving last year, virus cases were rising steadily, although they were much lower than they are now. But cases seemed to drop right after the holiday before steadily rising again in the weeks after that. A similar trend played out between Christmas and the New Year last year, and again a few months ago around Labor Day.

While reported cases often decline around the holidays, travel and family gatherings pose increased COVID-19 risks, particularly for unvaccinated people, said Dr. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiology professor at Boston University. For that reason, epidemiologists expect the infection rate to rise in the coming weeks, both in Maine and across the U.S.

But Horsburgh said vaccinations and testing of unvaccinated people can help reduce transmission of the virus over the holidays.

“We’re going to undoubtedly have a bump in cases, it’s unavoidable,” he said, “but we’d like to minimize it.”