AUGUSTA — Nearly a month since his last COVID-19 briefing, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah held a special briefing Wednesday afternoon, July 28, remotely from Augusta alongside Maine Department of Health and Human Services Director Jeanne Lambrew to update Mainers on how the state is confronting a recent rise of COVID-19 cases, largely a result of the Delta variant and discuss the newest recommendations from the U.S. CDC.
Shah noted that he, Commissioner Lambrew and Governor Janet Mills recommend the state follows the newest U.S. CDC recommendations regarding the use of masks in indoor public settings.
There are two recommendations: Wear masks in indoor public settings in areas of substantial community transmission rates and all teachers, staff, students and visitors of K-12 schools are to wear masks at school.
Both of these recommendations are applicable to individuals who are fully vaccinated. Shah stressed these are simply recommendations, not requirements.
The U.S. CDC determines level of community transmission based on the number of cases in the last seven days per 100,000 people and the percentage of tests in the last seven days that have a positive result.
During the 2 p.m. press briefing, Dr. Shah noted Knox and Waldo counties could possibly, at some point down the road, based upon trajectories the Maine CDC is studying, be included in the recommendation to wear masks in indoor public settings.
“I don’t mean to suggest for a second that [those two counties] will flip into that [county recommendation] category, I don’t mean to suggest that all,” said Dr. Shah during the briefing. “But, those are the two that are further away [from being included in the countywide recommendation].”
At the time of his statement, only York and Piscataquis counties were recorded by the U.S. CDC as having “substantial” levels of community transmission, which means that individuals should wear face coverings in indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. Maine’s other 14 counties had “moderate” levels of community transmission according to the U.S. CDC and thus were not subject to the first recommendation.
By 7 p.m. Wednesday evening, however, York and Piscataquis were downgraded to a “moderate” level meaning those two counties only spent roughly 24 hours under the federal recommendation to wear masks in indoor public settings.
Waldo County, meanwhile, has since been elevated to “substantial” by the U.S. CDC. As such, those in Waldo County are recommended to wear masks in indoor public settings by the U.S. CDC.
The rise in cases and the new recommendations are a result of the Delta variant, which Shah noted is different and more formidable than other strains of the virus. The variant is roughly twice as contagious and has become far more prominent in Maine. In fact, at least 47% of new cases are the Delta variant and that number, according to Dr. Shah, could be even higher.
The U.S. CDC opted to release this new recommendation, Dr. Shah said, because fully vaccinated individuals can still transmit COVID-19 to others, including those who are too young to receive the vaccine or are immunocompromised. The chances of that are low, Dr. Shah said, but are not zero. Thus, masking up in indoor public settings reduces the chances of unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 to vulnerable individuals.
Dr. Shah stressed that receiving a vaccine — either the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson — are still the best tool to keep us safe and work to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Most new cases around the country, he said, are occurring in unvaccinated individuals and areas of low vaccination rates.
The 850,000 fully vaccinated Mainers have a strong degree of protections against all variants of the virus, Shah noted, and are able to reduce their chances of experiencing severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
Ultimately, not much has changed for the majority of Mainers with the newest recommendation. Masks still do not have to be work in outdoor settings. Those who are unvaccinated have already been under recommendations to use face coverings in all counties. Only those in York and Piscataquis counties, at this time, are impacted by the new recommendation for wearing masks in indoor public settings.
Commissioner Lambrew, later in the briefing, touched on how the recommendation impacts schools.
It is being recommended that all staffers, students and visitors wear a mask when on a K-12 school campus. Again, these are only recommendations from the state. A local mandate may be able to enacted by area superintendents.
The DHHS and Department of Education are launching a three-point comprehensive plan of action to encourage more staffers and students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The first point would enable schools to partner with area health officials to hold vaccine clinics on their campus.
The second point would provide educational information to schools and school communities on what the vaccine is, why it is important and answer all questions about the vaccine. Letters, webinars and social media campaigns will be at the forefront of those plans.
Lastly, vaccination rates will be published for schools this fall by state health officials. In August, youth vaccination rates by district will be posted online while vaccination rates of school staffers will be posted online in September.
“Keeping children safe and healthy is critical to their ability to learn, grow, and thrive,” said Commissioner Lambrew. “By supporting schools in offering vaccination clinics, helping communities understand the benefits of these safe and effective vaccines, and equipping school leaders with information to make the best decisions for their communities, we can limit the spread of COVID-19.”
These recommendations come as Maine reported 70,141 statewide cumulative cases, since March 2020 on Wednesday morning in addition to one new death (a man in his 80s from Penobscot County, the state’s 899th death since March 2020). Sixty-five new cases were reported statewide Wednesday morning, including three in Knox County and six in Waldo County. No new cases were reported Wednesday morning in Lincoln County.
Since March 2020, there have been 2,135 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide. Forty-one people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, including 16 in the intensive care unit and nine on a ventilator.
COVID-19 vaccine remains widely available across the state. To find a vaccination location, go to maine.gov/covid19/vaccines/vaccination-sites or call the Community Vaccination Line at 1-888-445-4111.
Maine continues to demonstrate nation-leading progress in administering vaccinations and containing the spread of COVID-19. More than 63 percent of Maine’s total population is fully vaccinated and 68 percent has received at least one dose, according to the U.S. CDC vaccination tracker. 77 percent of eligible Maine people (12 years and older) have received at least one dose and nearly 72 percent of eligible Maine people are fully vaccinated.
Despite having the oldest median age population in the country, Maine, adjusted for population, ranks fourth lowest among states in both COVID-19 cases and deaths from COVID-19, according to the U.S. CDC.