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Maine has made strides in its ability to test people for the coronavirus since the pandemic first arrived here in March, but state health officials still see a need to keep expanding that capacity so that new outbreaks of the infection can be quickly detected and contained.
The state has already boosted its testing considerably by partnering with IDEXX Laboratories to triple the number of tests it can run each week. Combined with the efforts of private labs to process more tests, the boost has allowed Maine health care providers to test a wider range of people for the virus. It has also brought more certainty to statistics that show the number of new coronavirus cases has mostly been declining in recent weeks.
But another planned expansion of testing has yet to materialize, and many Maine people have been growing frustrated that tests still aren’t readily available for themselves or visitors from other states who need a negative result to avoid a legally required two-week quarantine.
Maine is generally reserving tests for those whose doctors have ordered them, people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and people at higher risk of becoming exposed to the virus, such as nursing home and grocery store employees.
Ben Sprague, a Bangor city councilor, said his sister who lives in Pennsylvania recently had to cancel a two-week trip to Maine that she was planning for this month because she could not find anywhere in either state that could test her or provide timely results.
“She had a week booked in Bar Harbor and then was going to spend a week in Bangor,” Sprague said, adding that the state seems to be “leaving a lot of money on the table by having people who want to come here and spend money not be able to get tested.”
Maine’s progress in testing for COVID-19 is demonstrated by the shrinking portion of tests that have been coming back positive, the so-called positivity rate.
Even as the state has ramped up testing, the generally shrinking number of new confirmed cases and the falling positivity rate suggest that the virus is spreading less within the state — and that health care providers are casting a wide net for the disease.
The state’s cumulative positivity rate for the whole pandemic fell below 3.6 percent this week, which is under the 5 percent threshold advised by public health experts, according to Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also down from the positivity rates of 5 and 6 percent that Maine was recording in April and May.
The average positivity rate over the previous week was 1.28 percent on Wednesday, which is the first time that figure has dropped below 1.3 percent, Shah said.
But while Maine has expanded the number of tests it runs each week from 8,398 in late May to 12,016 last week, in part through the partnership with IDEXX — and even though it’s one of only 12 states meeting a testing target set by the Harvard Global Health Institute — Shah said the state still needs to boost that volume further. Robert Long, a spokesperson for the Maine CDC, said the agency’s goal is to move from just managing the virus to suppressing it — getting to a point where it would be safe for society to reopen without risking a great number of new infections.
Over the last week, Maine has conducted a daily average of 1.7 new tests per 1,000 people, which puts it ahead of every New England state except Connecticut but in 25th place for the whole country, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The best performers on that measure were Alaska, New York and Louisiana, which all conducted a daily average of more than three tests per 1,000 people in the last week.
“We still have more to do to expand the overall volume of testing across the state,” Shah said. “But in terms of who we are testing and the results that we are seeing, measured by the positivity rate, there are good signs on the horizon.”
With many other states in the South and West now contending with skyrocketing COVID-19 rates after loosening restrictions on businesses and large gatherings, Shah added a note of caution that Maine should not use these signs “as an opportunity to celebrate.
“That positivity rate could go back up just as it has come back down,” he said.
A month ago, Maine announced that it was working with IDEXX to expand its testing capacity by another 25,000 tests per week at some point in July, but the state still has not completed that phase of the expansion amid delays in the shipment of necessary laboratory equipment, Shah said this week.
The Maine CDC’s lab in Augusta currently has enough supplies to ramp up testing and is experiencing no backlogs, according to Long. He said that anyone who is frustrated with the inability to get a test should recognize that there is a difference between the ability of labs to run tests and the rules that health care providers set for when they’ll collect samples to be tested.
Beginning later this month, Maine CDC also expects new “swab and send” sampling sites to start opening up around the state in partnership with private groups as part of the next testing expansion, according to Long.
“Maine CDC continues to recommend that individuals who want to be tested consult with their medical provider, who is best positioned to determine whether it’s the right time to take a sample for testing,” he said.
Those who believe they have been exposed to the virus should be able to use the state’s standing order to get tested for it.