With mask requirements set to expire, Maine reports 170 new cases, 2 more deaths

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May 21—Maine reported 170 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and two additional deaths, three days before Gov. Janet Mills repeals the mask mandate in most settings.

An executive order signed by Mills on Wednesday rescinds the mask mandate, after the governor said last week that the state would be aligning with new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear face coverings indoors.

Businesses can still require customers to wear masks, but starting Monday, masking is no longer mandated by the state for either vaccinated or unvaccinated people. The U.S. CDC says unvaccinated people should wear masks in public.

Last week, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, and Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner, acknowledged that it would be difficult for businesses to differentiate between customers who were fully vaccinated and those who were not, and said enforcement would likely be largely the purview of business owners.

So starting Monday, the mask mandate is repealed for everyone, except mask wearing is still required in schools and child care facilities.

"The executive order is consistent with our announcement last week and our discussions afterward," said Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Among New England states, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are repealing the mask mandate, while Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut are keeping an indoor mask mandate for the unvaccinated. All of the states maintain some exceptions, such as for schools and public transportation, and businesses are permitted to set their own mask requirements. In most health care settings masks will still be required regardless of vaccination status.

"Already, we've had people arriving at our hospitals and clinics and asking why they must still wear a mask and maintain social distancing," said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer with MaineHealth, in a statement. "The answer is that the new guidelines from the U.S. CDC specifically say health care settings must continue to require masks and practice social distancing."

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland and infectious disease expert, said that as the pandemic starts to ease and the nation is no longer in crisis, public policies start to change. Blaisdell said policies have to adapt to human behavior, and masks are not the only tool to reduce risk of transmission during a pandemic.

"I think there could be pros and cons either way," Blaisdell said, referring to the decision on whether states should keep a mask mandate indoors for the unvaccinated. She said one potential positive for repealing the mask mandate is that when unvaccinated people see others unmasked in indoor public places, they might feel more at risk and it could spur them to put on a mask or get vaccinated.

But Blaisdell said she worries about children too young to be immunized, even though children in general do not get as sick from COVID-19 as adults. Those 12 and older have vaccines approved for use by the federal government, but younger children don't have an approved vaccine yet. Research is ongoing, but health experts predict a vaccine for children 11 and younger likely won't be ready for use until fall at the earliest.

Blaisdell said she recommends children who aren't yet eligible for vaccines wear masks in indoor public places, in addition to unvaccinated adults.

"As long as there are people who can't get vaccinated, we should be protecting those who can't protect themselves in public places," Blaisdell said.

The repeal comes at a time when vaccination is slowing, but case counts are also declining. The seven-day average of daily new cases fell below 200 on Friday, to 196.3, the first time the seven-day average has been below 200 since late March. A week ago, the seven-day average was 269.3 and a month ago, 421.9.

Since the pandemic began, 66,704 people in Maine have tested positive for COVID-19, with 818 deaths. As of Friday, 106 people were in Maine hospitals with the disease, including 38 in critical care beds.

Vaccinations continue to climb above 50 percent of Maine's total 1.3 million population, with 692,796, or 51.54 percent of the population, receiving at least the first dose. Also, 661,896, or 49.24 percent, have received their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

As demand for the vaccines weaken, the state is shifting its vaccination strategy away from mass vaccination sites, to smaller-scale operations like at schools, doctor's offices, pharmacies and workplaces.

The Scarborough Downs location, operated by MaineHealth, closed on Thursday. The Portland Expo site will close on June 18, and the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor will close on May 27. The Expo and Cross sites are both run by Northern Light Health.

"We are closing because we did our job," said Ellie Foster, a pod team leader at Scarborough Downs, on the clinic's final day on Thursday. "This is more sweet than bitter. We put ourselves out of business."

Also on Friday, the Maine Department of Education listed all counties in the "green" category, including Androscoggin County, which had been in "yellow." A green designation means that schools have a relatively lower risk of COVID-19 and can do in-person instruction. Androscoggin County's case rate has fallen by more than 25 percent during the past two weeks, which is one reason why the county was returned to green status.

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