Jul. 7—Maine has recorded the lowest rate of positive COVID-19 tests since state health officials began tracking the key metric in June of 2020.
The positivity rate, which is the percent of all COVID-19 tests that return positive results, measures how widely the virus is circulating in the community.
The seven-day positivity rate logged in at 0.45 percent on Wednesday, the "lowest rate I have in my notes for the entire pandemic," said Robert Long, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman. The high mark was 6.31 percent on Jan. 4.
Case counts can vary for a number of reasons, including spikes in testing volume. But positivity rates — as long as testing is widely available to the public, as it is now — are a more precise reflection of how prevalent the virus is in a community, according to public health experts.
A low positivity rate also gives public health officials a better chance to stem the spread of the virus by using quarantine and isolation, which are more effective at reducing transmission when there are fewer overall cases of the disease. Maine and the country now have widely available vaccination — in addition to isolation measures — to tamp down the virus.
The national positivity rate is 2.4 percent, according to the Johns Hopkins University testing tracker. But some states that are experiencing summer surges, such as Nevada and Missouri, are seeing positivity rates soar above 10 percent. Nationally, positivity rates peaked at more than 13 percent in early January, other than the early weeks of the pandemic, when testing was scarce.
In Maine, the positivity rate dipped to 0.5 percent for a few days in August, Long said, but was never as low as it is now. During the spring surge in April, the positivity rate was about 3 percent in Maine.
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland, said that she's "very grateful" the state's positivity rate is low, but she warned that with the more contagious Delta variant circulating, there is still a need to be cautious. Through July 2, the most recent data available, Maine has reported four cases of the Delta variant.
Hospitalizations have remained steady at about 30 statewide for several weeks.
"This pandemic fire is far from over, although with the vaccines, we do have an excellent fire suit," Mills said.
Mills said the positivity rate may also be somewhat skewed from increased use of COVID-19 screening tests used to attend or work at Maine's summer camps. Tests used for screening are likely to result in a lower positivity rate as opposed to tests where people are feeling symptoms and get tested, she said.
But Mills said the overall pandemic conditions in Maine have improved.
"Even though I am saying these words of caution, Maine and New England are one of the safest places in the world to be in, with our high vaccination rates," Mills said.
Overall, the current COVID-19 testing volume is about 225 per 100,000 people, much lower than 600 per 100,000 before vaccines became widely available. With more people vaccinated, there's less need for testing.
Meanwhile, Maine reported 38 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with one additional death. The case total represents infections detected over the previous two days.
With the pandemic easing, the Maine CDC is not routinely updating its case counts on holidays and weekends. Because July 4 fell on a Sunday, state offices and many workplaces were closed on Monday.
The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 18.4 on Wednesday, compared to 25.1 a week ago and 72.9 a month ago.
Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 69,156 cases of COVID-19, and 861 deaths. The most recent death was a man age 80 or older who lived in Cumberland County, the Maine CDC said.
The number of people hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19 rose slightly to 31 on Wednesday, including 16 in critical care beds and six on a ventilator.
On the vaccination front, 791,510 people in Maine have received their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, representing 58.9 percent of the state's 1.3 million population. Maine has the third-highest percentage of its population fully vaccinated, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, behind Vermont and Massachusetts. The New England states take up the top six spots in the nation for the highest percentage of people who are fully vaccinated.