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Sep. 10—Maine health officials are tracking 14 active outbreaks in Maine schools two weeks into the new academic year as COVID-19 cases continue to mount statewide.
The state reported 506 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday as Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention officials work through a backlog of tests and patients fill intensive care units in record numbers. There were eight additional deaths.
Maine's Department of Education reported 14 active outbreaks in schools as of late Thursday. So far, schools have not been considered to be the source of transmission, state health officials have said. Instead, students were believed to have been exposed to the virus in their communities as the delta variant spreads through all parts of the state. Outbreaks are defined as three or more cases in one location, but are not necessarily linked to each other.
The outbreaks, as well isolated cases at many more schools, are disrupting the start of the school year. Hundreds of students who came into close contact with infected students and are unvaccinated — in many cases because they are two young to get a shot — are at home in quarantine.
And the Mildred L. Day School, an elementary school in Arundel, has extended a closure and shift to remote learning until Sept. 20 after eight more positive cases were detected late this week, bringing the total to 20.
"We urge MLD families to stay home," Superintendent Terri Cooper wrote in a message to the community Friday. "Playdates and participation in community events will increase the spread that we are experiencing.
The number of outbreaks posted by the state is sure to climb. Cooper also alerted the community on Friday that Kennebunk Elementary School is in outbreak status, but it was not among the 14 posted by the state late Thursday.
Also among the school outbreaks are four cases at Freeport High School, four cases at Great Falls Elementary School in Gorham, four cases at Windham High School and at least three cases at Massabesic High School in Waterboro. There was also an outbreak at Gorham High School, according to the Maine CDC, although the school department's website now lists two active cases at the high school.
COVID-19 exposure has resulted in at least eight high school football games being postponed or canceled so far this season. Generally, unvaccinated students who are close contacts of those who are infected with COVID-19 are required to quarantine, while exposed vaccinated students do not need to quarantine. For high school sports teams, what that means is the more unvaccinated players there are on a team, the more likely games will have to be postponed or canceled when there's exposures to the virus. All sporting events for Mount Desert Island High School for Friday and Saturday have been canceled, and the reason is COVID-19 related, the Mount Desert Islander newspaper reported.
The vaccines are not yet available for those under age 12, but the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine for ages 5-11 this fall, according to news reports. That approval could come before Halloween.
Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 79,929 cases of COVID-19, and 959 deaths.
The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 337 on Friday, compared to 371 a week ago and 147 a month ago. Maine has the sixth-lowest rate of virus prevalence in the nation, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute, with 26.7 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 45 cases per 100,000. Connecticut has the lowest rate in the country at 15.4, while hard-hit states like Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky are experiencing rates of 90 or more cases per 100,000.
With the pandemic is still surging in much of the country, President Biden on Thursday announced sweeping new vaccination mandates, including requiring business with 100 or more employees to have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly, and a mandate for federal workers and health care workers to get their shots. About one in three Maine workers will be affected by the new mandates.
Meanwhile, the surge in cases has resulted in a greater demand for testing.
Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland on Friday reopened a drive-up testing facility at the Fore River Parkway campus, with hours from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., seven days per week. Also, walk-in testing is once again available at Northern Light Mercy Walk-in Care in Gorham from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and at the walk-in care site in Windham, daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The state is experiencing a shortage of testing capacity during the late summer spike in cases.
Also on Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it is disbursing $25.5 billion nationwide to "assist health care providers facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19," according to a news release from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Collins and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., advocated for the federal government to "swiftly distribute" funding to those who are experiencing financial shortfalls.
"The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our health care providers, particularly long-term care facilities and rural hospitals, and we cannot ignore the financial realities they face. Three nursing homes have closed in Maine in just the past month and others have struggled to stay open," Collins said in a statement.
During his Wednesday media briefing, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said agency staffers were working through more than 2,400 positive test results that had to be reviewed to distinguish new infections from repeat positive tests of known cases.
Shah said the Maine CDC was receiving 420-440 positive test results every day and that additional staff have been added to the review team.
"We anticipate that there will be sustained, high numbers of cases as we make our way through those 2,441 labs," Shah said on Wednesday.
While the 192 total hospitalizations in Maine — as of Friday — is shy of last winter's peak numbers, the 72 patients in intensive care unit beds is more than at any time during the first peak of the pandemic last January. The number of patients in ICUs dropped slightly from a high of 74 on Thursday. Additionally, 37 of those people — roughly 20 percent of all hospitalizations — required ventilators to assist with breathing.
Between 70 to 75 percent of those hospitalized — and nearly 100 percent of people in the ICU on some days — are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Maine CDC said.
"It's deeply concerning," Shah said about current hospitalizations and the record number of ICU patients. "There is a saying that what's predictable is preventable. That's kind of what keeps me up at night. The delta surge was predictable. The question is: How many of the instances of people being hospitalized or in the ICU or on ventilators, how many of those are preventable?"