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AUGUSTA, Maine — The state will release more detailed data on where the coronavirus is, but it has not settled on how it will break down the data and will release it at a higher case threshold than other New England states, Maine’s top public health official said Wednesday.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said the virus has reached enough density in the state that releasing information on the city, town or zip code level could be done without compromising the privacy of people who have contracted the virus.
This week, he teased plans to soon release more granular data after news outlets have pressured the state to release the information. The Bangor Daily News requested a town-by-town breakdown of cases in late April and the Maine CDC estimated that it would take six months to provide the data.
So far, the Maine CDC has only released case data on the county level, making the state the last of the New England states to not release municipal data. Shah has consistently cited privacy concerns, saying someone in a town with a small population could be outed if data were published. He has also argued the public may interpret the information to mean virus precautions may not be necessary if their municipality does not have a recorded case.
In late April, he said how the cases are distributed across the state — not the total number of cases — would determine when the information is released. On Wednesday, he said the state has enough per capita cases to release more detailed information, though there still may be places where too few cases have been detected and the state has not settled on a format.
“We now have a significantly higher number of cases, which on a per-capita basis means that we can release information at more than the county level and still make attempts to preserve privacy,” he said.
The majority of the cases have been limited to four of Maine’s 16 counties — Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Kennebec, according to Maine CDC data. As of Wednesday, the rest have stayed in the double-digits and seen only periodic increases. Piscataquis and Washington counties have had one and two cases, respectively, for weeks.
Maine has had 2,137 cases since the virus was first detected in March as of Wednesday, or about 159 cases per 100,000 people. Four of the five other New England states have released granular information at lower thresholds.
New Hampshire — which has similar demographics and population size but is denser — released a municipal breakdown on March 30, when the state had 314 cases, or 23 per 100,000 residents, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. Only Massachusetts — with about six times the population of Maine — released the information when the per capita rate of infection was higher, at 434 cases per 100,000, according to WBUR.
The New England First Amendment Coalition on Wednesday followed with a request of its own for town-by-town data, which was coordinated with other Maine news organizations, including the BDN, the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers.
Watch: What Maine is doing to expand contact tracing