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Apr. 27—The Mills administration on Tuesday repealed a requirement that people wear masks outdoors, a COVID-19 pandemic rule that had been in place for nearly six months. Masks will still be required for indoor public settings.
Removing outdoor masking for everyone in Maine goes a step further than new guidelines announced Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency recommends that people who are vaccinated can gather outdoors without masks, except in large groups. But the U.S. CDC keeps in place most restrictions for masking for unvaccinated populations.
"We are updating Maine's public health guidance to reflect the U.S. CDC's latest recommendations that indicate the risk of transmitting COVID-19 while outdoors is low, especially as more people get vaccinated," said Maine Gov. Janet Mills in a statement. "With the summer months nearly upon us, this offers a great opportunity for people to get outside and safely enjoy all that Maine has to offer."
The new U.S. CDC guidance says vaccinated people don't need to wear masks outside. But Maine is going further by ending masking requirements outdoors for all people, whether vaccinated or not.
In Maine, masks are still recommended outdoors where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, but the requirement to do so has been eliminated. The rules for mandatory outdoor masking went into effect on Nov. 5, to go along with more restrictive rules on masking in indoor settings.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said that "scientific studies continue to show that outdoor activities are much safer than indoor ones."
Shah said Maine's pace of vaccination — Maine is tops in the nation with the percentage of its population fully vaccinated — is a big reason why Maine made the change.
"It's a recognition times are changing because of vaccination, and with it guidelines are changing," Shah said at a news briefing on Tuesday.
Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner, said simplicity was another consideration, preferable to asking people to remember a set of rules.
"We want to make it pretty clear what to do and when," Lambrew said.
The changes to outdoor masking could have implications for outdoor high school and recreational sports. Lambrew said community sports guidelines will be changing later this week to reflect the new masking requirements. The Maine Principals' Association, which has rules that generally follow the rules for community sports, could follow suit.
Meanwhile, Maine reported 425 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and five additional deaths. Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 60,430 cases of COVID-19, and 777 deaths.
Those in their 30s or younger continue to drive case counts, accounting for 287 of the 425 cases on Tuesday, or 67 percent of all new cases. People in their 60s or older totaled 39 of Tuesday's cases, or 9 percent. People in their 40s and 50s accounted for 99 cases, or 24 percent of the total.
Androscoggin County was a hot spot for new cases on Tuesday, with 87 cases. Cumberland County reported 82 cases, but Cumberland County's population is much higher than Androscoggin, at 295,000 people compared to 109,000 for Androscoggin County.
But the trend of new cases has declined recently. The seven-day average of daily new cases was 361.4 on Tuesday, compared to 452.4 a week ago, but still higher than a month ago, when it was 199.9.
While vaccinations are continuing, demand appears to be starting to wane.
Shah said with an influx of vaccines, and with many of those who were most eager to receive the vaccine having already scheduled appointments, the state is moving to other strategies to try to get Mainers inoculated.
"We are starting to shift to make vaccinating the easy choice," Shah said. "Vaccination moves at the speed of trust and at the speed of convenience."
The Portland Expo will begin offering walk-up vaccinations starting on Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., part of an overall effort by health care systems to offer more walk-up appointments.
The Expo, which is operated by Northern Light Health and open from Tuesdays through Fridays, will have walk-up opportunities available, but they are dependent on weekly vaccine shipments. Immunization appointments can still be scheduled ahead of time at covid.northernlighthealth.org or by calling (207) 204-8551.
In addition to the Expo, the mobile vaccination site at Biddeford High School is accepting walk-ups from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through Wednesday. The mobile unit will move to the Fryeburg Fairgrounds on Friday, where it will also accept walk-ups as well as scheduled appointments.
John Porter, a spokesman for MaineHealth, which is operating the mass vaccination clinics at Scarborough Downs, the former Marshalls in Sanford and many other locations, said the health care system intends to soon offer more walk-up immunization opportunities as well as expanded hours, such as early morning and evening hours.
Shah said many working people can't easily schedule time off of work, but there may be windows of time where they could get a shot, and so expanded hours and the convenience of walk-up appointments will work for many.
"Walk-in appointments are available and encouraged," Shah said.
There are other signals demand for vaccinations is weakening. The seven-day average of shots given has gone from 13,518 per day two weeks ago to 12,259 for the most recent week ending on Tuesday, according to state data.
A vaccination clinic operated by the Augusta Fire Department slated for Tuesday at the Belgrade Center for All Seasons was canceled on Tuesday after a lack of appointments. Those who had appointments are being re-scheduled for vaccinations on Saturday at Cony High School.
Also on Tuesday, the Mills administration announced it is offering Maine schools a new COVID-19 testing option, called "pooled testing" through a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks Inc.
Pooled testing involves collecting swabs from small groups of consenting students and staff, such as from one classroom, combining the test samples in a "batch" or "pool," and then testing the single pooled sample. Pooled testing reduces costs, up to 50 to 70 percent, and is more efficient at detecting the presence of the virus in larger populations, public health experts have said.
As of Tuesday, 613,852 Maine people, or 45.67 percent of the state's 1.3 million population, had received at least the first dose of vaccine. Also, 483,950 people, or 36 percent, had received their final dose.
Mainers were better than the national average in following through with getting the second shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Nationwide, more than five million people, or nearly 8 percent of those who got a first shot of the two-shot vaccines, have missed their second doses, the New York Times reported citing recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Maine CDC says that fewer than 2 percent of Maine people who got a first dose are "overdue" for a second dose for any reason, including things such as transportation or work schedule conflicts. A person is considered overdue after the 22nd day for Pfizer and the 29th day for Moderna, agency spokesman Robert Long said in an email.