Maine eases COVID-19 guidelines for schools to reduce disruptions during omicron surge

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Dec. 30—The Mills administration announced Thursday it is easing some COVID-19 guidelines for schools to help keep children in classrooms even as the fast-spreading omicron variant is expected to cause more infections in the coming weeks.

Among the changes, exposure to an infected person on a school bus or outdoors will no longer be considered a close contact or force a student to stay home from school and quarantine. Students who participate in pooled testing programs at their schools and are exempt from quarantines after classroom exposures will also no longer have to quarantine after exposures at home or in their communities.

VITAL SIGNS

New COVID-19 cases: 1,091

Total cases: 145,629

New deaths: 15

Total deaths: 1,527

Hospitalizations: 329

Total critical care beds: 378

Available critical care beds: 58

Fully vaccinated: 957,493

Percentage of population: 71.23%

Also, the state will no longer initiate school outbreak investigations based on three related cases. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will instead open an outbreak investigation when a school reports more than 15 percent of its population is absent, which is the standard for flu outbreak investigations. The state had been tracking more than 260 school outbreaks under the old standard.

The changes are in addition to the announcement Wednesday that the state would follow new federal guidance and shorten the number of days students must remain in isolation or quarantine after an infection or close contact. The isolation and quarantine period is being reduced from 10 days to five, although mask wearing is required in all settings for five days after students are allowed to return to school.

Universal mask wearing is still recommended in schools statewide, according to the Mills administration. However, it is up to local school boards whether to require masks in schools.

"The revisions are intended to help keep students in-classroom while protecting their health and safety and that of staff," the state's written announcement said. "The Mills Administration has prioritized in-classroom learning and has provided school administrative units will several options to ensure that students can remain in school, including vaccination, universal masking, and pooled testing."

The changes come as public schools, colleges and the state's hospitals brace for a surge in cases here as the fast-spreading omicron variant takes hold in Maine.

Omicron is expected to become the dominant strain in Maine soon, if it isn't already.

The Maine CDC reported Thursday that 13.7 percent of all COVID-19 tests are coming back positive, a record-high positivity rate for the state. The increase may reflect the accelerating spread of omicron, although it also may reflect a shortage of tests that is making it difficult for people to get screened, especially if they are not sick.

Maine health officials on Thursday reported 15 additional deaths and 1,091 more cases of COVID-19, although a backlog in positive tests submitted to the state means some cases are from earlier this month. The state's official case count also does not include people who use at-home tests that aren't reported or who do not get tested at all, in part because testing sites are booked up.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals dropped to 329 from 331 on Wednesday, while the number of patients in critical care climbed to 117 from 109. A total of 57 patients were on ventilators Thursday, also a slight increase from Wednesday's number.

While the number of patients is down from a peak of 387 on Dec. 21, it is still high enough to strain hospital staff and resources. And hospitals are bracing for a possible rise in illnesses from the fast-spreading omicron variant, which is driving up patients counts in some other states.

About two-thirds of all COVID-19 patients — and about 90 percent of intensive care patients — are unvaccinated, according to state health officials.

As the omicron variant spreads in Maine and causes more infections, state health officials said Wednesday that schools will be advised to follow new federal guidelines that shorten the amount of time infected individuals and their close contacts should remain in isolation or quarantine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday that quarantine and isolation should last five days, followed by five more days of mask wearing around other people. The previous guideline had been to quarantine and isolate a full 10 days.

Federal health officials said the guideline changes reflect that an infected person is less likely to spread the virus after five days, although some have criticized the guidance because infected people can be contagious longer than that.

The change is expected to help hospitals and critical businesses maintain staffing as the more contagious omicron variant drives up infection rates. The state's decision to apply the guidelines for schools also is intended to help keep schools open and reduce the time students have to stay home if they become infected or are exposed.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Wednesday the new rules are a balancing act between maintaining safety and offering rules that are more realistic, and more likely to be followed.

"We know quarantine and isolation are hard on people," Shah said. COVID-19 is also far more contagious in the first five days than in days six through 10, he said.

In addition, colleges and universities in Maine and nationwide are revising plans for the spring semester in response to concerns about the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Bates College in Lewiston announced Wednesday that it will start the new semester remotely and restrict activities, in addition to requiring students to get COVID booster shots. Bates students will also have to get their dining hall meals to go and wear face coverings indoors.

Others, such as Bowdoin College in Brunswick, The University of New England in Biddeford and Portland, and St. Joseph's College in Standish, are requiring students to get booster shots.

The University of Maine System has recommended that all students get booster shots but has so far not required it.

"We are reviewing all protocols," Margaret Nagle, senior director of public relations, said in an email. "We are closely tracking changes with the pandemic, public health guidance and steps that other institutions are taking. We will communicate any changes in our practices when finalized."

New COVID-19 infections nationwide have skyrocketed to the highest levels so far during the pandemic.

An average of 300,000 new cases are being reported each day, more than twice the infection rate 14 days ago, according to federal data. The U.S. CDC estimates that 59 percent of new cases last week were caused by the omicron variant.

Hospitalizations have also risen across the country as omicron spreads. And more children are now being hospitalized. During the week of Dec. 21-27, an average of 334 children ages 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 58 percent increase from the week before, according to the CDC.

However, the overall number of hospital patients is not rising as fast as the number of new cases. Experience in other parts of the world indicates that omicron causes less severe symptoms for most people who get the disease.

Federal ambulance crews are arriving this week to help transport patients and free up capacity at eight hospitals around the state. But hospitals also are bracing for the possibility of more patients as the omicron variant spreads.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said during a media briefing Wednesday that it's difficult to predict what the omicron variant will mean for hospitals in the coming weeks.

Analysis of hospitalized patients in other countries that have seen omicron surges, as well as other research, suggests the variant tends to be less severe than delta and other variants. But because omicron is more transmissible, hospitals may still be hit with a surge of patients, Jarvis said.

"The overall number of hospitalizations may not go down. In fact, it may go up," Jarvis said.

Shah said "the scientific jury is still out on what omicron means from a severity point of view."

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