Jun. 2—State health officials are encouraging employees in health care, hospitality and retail industries to get tested regularly for COVID-19, even if they don't have symptoms, in an effort to minimize virus transmission during the upcoming tourist season.
Maine's Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that it's expanding free rapid testing at 61 sites across the state, most of them Walgreens pharmacies.
"While COVID-19 rates are declining in Maine, testing remains critical to keeping our businesses open and our communities healthy as we get out and about this summer," DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. "If you're concerned about your exposure to the virus through your job, we encourage you to visit any Walgreens location in Maine to monitor your health with a series of free, rapid tests."
Previously, only people with symptoms were recommended for testing, but because many younger people are asymptomatic, the hope is to limit spread among those who might not be aware they are carrying the virus. Although Maine's vaccination rate is relatively high, there are still nearly 400,000 adults who remain at risk, and another 160,000 children under the age of 12 in Maine who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.
A list of testing sites is available online at: maine.gov/covid19/keepmainehealthy/testing.
Curtis Picard, president of the Retail Association of Maine, said he sees the increased testing option as another tool for retailers to use to keep customers and staff safe.
"It doesn't really change anything, but it's good to know it's available," he said.
Asked if he thought it might be seen as cumbersome for workers to get regularly tested, Picard said he didn't think so because there is no requirement.
Meanwhile, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 61 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the fourth consecutive day of fewer than 100 cases.
The seven-day daily case average now sits at 86, the lowest it's been since Nov. 1, according to data from the Maine CDC. That's down from 225 two weeks ago and a springtime high of 479 cases on average on April 17.
Two additional deaths were reported Wednesday as well — the first COVID-19 related deaths reported since a week ago.
Hospitalizations continue to decrease as well. As of Wednesday, there were 87 people in the hospital with COVID-19, including 29 in critical care and 18 on ventilators. It's the fifth straight day of declining numbers and is now at the lowest total since April 11.
"Things are for the first time in months heading in a positive and favorable direction," CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday, referring to the virus as "on the run, but not yet out of sight."
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been falling dramatically across the country as well. The daily cases average, about 16,000, is the lowest since the early days of the pandemic, although some of the decrease is a function of lower testing volume, especially in some southern states. Maine's testing volume remains high and currently ranks eighth among all states over the most recent seven-day period, according to the U.S. CDC.
Since the first cases were detected in Maine nearly 15 months ago, there have been 67,880 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 827 deaths. Both are among the lowest per capita of any state. Since vaccines have been in circulation, there have been 333 breakthrough cases, which means 99.96 percent of vaccinated people have not gotten the virus.
Shah said there is no question that vaccinations have been key to Maine's declining trends, but he also said more work is needed.
"The less virus that's circulating, the more epidemiological dead ends there are," he said.
Maine's pace of vaccinations has been decreasing steadily for seven consecutive weeks and has fallen even more dramatically over the last week. Doses have not reached 10,000 on any day since May 21 after routinely eclipsing that mark daily from early March through early May.
Other states have seen similar declines. At peak in mid-April, the United States was administering more than 3 million shots every day. Now, the average is closer to 1.2 million per day.
Overall, Maine has administered 717,993 first doses, accounting for 60.6 percent of all residents over the age of 12 who are eligible, and 703,619 final doses, representing 59.4 percent of all eligible residents.
Despite a steady decline, Maine trails only Vermont among states with the highest vaccination rate, according to a Bloomberg tracker. The top six states are all in New England. The bottom five states are all in the South. The U.S. rate is about 48 percent among those over the age of 12.
Just as there are wide variations in vaccination rates among states, there are geographic disparities in Maine. Southern counties and those along the Midcoast are leading the way with vaccination rates of 60 percent or higher among those eligible, and Cumberland County has even gone over 70 percent. On the other end, some rural counties are struggling to reach 50 percent. Looking at doses that were administered Tuesday, the figures range from 1,168 shots in Cumberland County to just eight shots in all of Piscataquis County.
Shah acknowledged that some counties are outperforming others but said even Maine's lowest performing counties "would be on par with California in percentage of population that is fully vaccinated."
Meanwhile, state officials and health care providers are increasingly working with businesses to offer smaller clinics. Some are dangling incentives as well.
Lambrew said the state had received at least 30 inquiries from Maine businesses about hosting small clinics on site. She also said the state is examining other ways to incentivize getting the vaccine, although no details have been confirmed.
"We're always looking for good ideas," she said.
MaineHealth this week is partnering with Becky's Diner in Portland on a pop-up vaccination clinic from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. Anyone who gets vaccinated also will get a $15 gift certificate to the landmark diner.
A mobile vaccination unit, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that has been traveling the state, also will come to Portland next week, setting up from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Thursday, June 10 through Sunday, June 13 at Rising Tide Brewery on Fox Street. The unit will then go to Old Orchard Beach for four days from June 15-18.
As the state looks to fill gaps in vaccinations, more and more public places and businesses are starting to look like they did before the pandemic. Masks are not required for vaccinated individuals in most instances. Gathering limits are no longer in place.
Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor announced Wednesday that the positive trends on cases and vaccinations will allow the hospital to adjust its visiting hours to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Patients are still limited to one visitor per day and visitors must still be screened for symptoms and wear masks while inside.