Watch: Mills updates reopening plans as Maine reports 2 deaths, 28 new COVID-19 cases

Maine reported 28 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths Wednesday, and Gov. Janet Mills announced a slowdown in planned restaurant re-openings as a result of epidemiological trends in three counties.

Mills said she was postponing the re-opening of restaurants for dine-in service in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties, because of rising numbers of new cases and hospitalizations. Dine-in service in those counties had been scheduled to begin on Monday.

The governor said the state would soon be updating guidance for outdoor dining for restaurants, and she urged municipalities in the three counties to consider closing streets to vehicular traffic so restaurants can establish outdoor seating areas.

She said a date for indoor dining will be set in the future for the three counties. Dine-in seating will be allowed in Penobscot Count on Monday, and restaurants in the state’s 12 other counties have been open since last Monday, under guidelines that require distancing of customers and other steps to prevent virus transmission.

Other businesses will be allowed to open on Monday under state guidelines, as planned, Mills said.

After a spike in cases last week related in part to an outbreak at Cape Memory Care, a home in Cape Elizabeth for dementia patients, the daily increase in case numbers has slowed as the state expands its testing capabilities and ability to trace positive cases.

Mills will join Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director at 2 p.m. for an update on the state’s reopening plans. Wednesday’s case numbers showed an increase of 39 people who had recovered, bringing the total recoveries to 1,357. Active cases declined by 13 since Tuesday, to 699. Overall cases stood at 2,137 on Wednesday, with 81 total deaths.

A woman in her 70s and a man in his 80s, both from Cumberland County, were the deaths reported Wednesday, Shah said.

Current hospitalizations ticked down from 60 on Tuesday to 59 on Wednesday. Of the 59 patients, 25 were in critical care, down from 26 on Tuesday. And 14 of the patients were on ventilators, up from 13 on Tuesday.

Hospitalization rates and death trends are key metrics for tracking the progress of the virus and efforts to contain transmission. Intensive care beds and ventilators are critical tools for treating hospitalized patients, and epidemiologists closely monitor the demand for those tools as they study the spread of the disease.

Testing numbers were also released on Wednesday, with 9,183 tests performed during the past week, compared to about 7,000 the previous week and about triple the 3,000 or so tests conducted per week in April and early May. The percent positive rate was at 3.4 percent for testing that occurred during the past week. Cumulatively, the COVID-19 positive rate for Maine is about 5 percent of all tests performed.

Shah has said previously that one of the major goals to contain the spread of the virus is to ramp up testing and contact tracing and drive down the percent that tested positive to levels seen in South Korea – about 2-3 percent. South Korea is considered one of the models of how aggressive testing and tracing can contain outbreaks and allow for some relaxing of social distancing requirements.

The new numbers come on the heels of Tuesday’s announcement of Maine CDC plans to hire 125 more full-time employees for contact tracing of COVID-19, adding to the 30 who are doing the work now.

Contact tracing has been used by public health officials for hundreds of years to combat diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox and, more recently, the Ebola virus. It involves identifying both people who have contracted the virus and those who might have come into contact with those individuals during their infectious period.

Once a list of contacts is built, those people are then called and told to quarantine for 14 days. Even the smallest disruption of transmission goes a long way to preventing exponential spread.

Currently, the Maine CDC has a team of 30 contact tracers – up from 15 from before the coronavirus pandemic – but has begun adding more. Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the state’s goal is to hire a diverse group, particularly in light of the racial disparity in COVID-19 cases. Including the volunteers, Maine could have 205 individuals working on contact tracing, which is line with experts’ recommendations of 15 per 100,000 people.

She estimated that the cost to boost contact tracing would be about $7.5 million and would come entirely from federal coronavirus relief funds provided to the state.

The traditional kickoff to summer – Memorial Day weekend – is now in the rearview mirror, but the Mills administration is still determining how to handle tourist season. Many businesses make-or-break time is during tourist season, but travel and congregating in large crowd is one of the key ways the disease has spread.

Shah said Tuesday that he was encouraged by the behaviors he saw over the holiday period.

“In my goings out over the weekend … what we saw was remarkable compliance,” he said, referring to people maintaining physical distancing and wearing face coverings when appropriate. “I think it speaks a lot to the fact that people want to do what’s best for their community.”

Shah did acknowledge that “not everyone is going to want to be on board.”

“The No. 1 question we can all ask other people … is not so much what they believe but why? What would it take for someone to come around to the idea that this is a serious concern?”

Lambrew said the state’s approach to enforcing the guidelines has been to remind people that this is a public health crisis and “violations put people in imminent risk.” She said the state is always looking at whether to adjust its guidelines, including the 14-day quarantine required for out-of-state visitors, but absent treatment or a vaccine, there are “not that many good alternatives.”

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