Coronavirus cases have been steadily rebounding in Maine over the last two months, even as the state enters the next phase of its economic reopening and loosened travel restrictions have made it easier for visitors to come here from around the Northeast.
Though case numbers continue to be lower in Maine than in most of the rest of the country, new and active cases of the virus have been climbing since mid-August — as they have been across much of the Northeast, which had kept the virus under relative control during the summer.
The state’s seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases more than doubled from 15 in mid-August — its lowest point since the start of the pandemic — to around 35 in recent days. However, that rolling average of new daily cases still hasn’t approached the high point of 52 that it hit in late May.
At the same time, new outbreaks have been emerging in less populated areas of the state’s interior that saw few cases earlier. While Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties have accounted for the bulk of Maine’s cases throughout the pandemic, new and active cases have recently been rising in more rural Somerset and Kennebec counties.
Since the start of October, Somerset County, home to 3.8 percent of Maine’s population, has accounted for 10.6 percent of the state’s new cases, while Kennebec County, home to 9.1 percent of Maine residents, has been responsible for 13.5 percent of new cases.
Dr. Peter Millard, a former epidemiology staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an adjunct professor with the University of New England, thinks the steady rise in cases across Maine was “pretty predictable” after an Aug. 7 wedding in the Millinocket area sparked the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreak and contributed to at least two secondary outbreaks, including one that infected 87 people connected to the York County Jail.
While Millard credited the administration of Gov. Janet Mills with “trying to thread the needle and not be overly restrictive” as it loosens business restrictions, he also warned that a continued uptick in new cases may be “inevitable” as the economy keeps reopening.
In addition to a steady number of outbreaks, Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, sees two other reasons for the steady rise in cases since mid-August. One of them is the state’s ramped up ability to test for the virus, which has allowed it to detect the virus more easily as schools have resumed classes for the fall and people have started spending more time indoors.
Another, more troubling trend, Shah said, is that the state is finding an increasing number of coronavirus cases in people who have no known connection to other cases, meaning the virus is silently spreading through the community.
“We’ve seen greater levels of community transmission,” Shah said. There have been “increasing numbers of people on a daily basis who, when the case investigator first reaches out to them, that individual doesn’t report any known connections with an open outbreak. That’s a sign that transmission is occurring and folks are not quite sure how they contracted the disease.”
Experts have long warned of a second surge of COVID-19 in the fall and winter, when the virus is expected to more easily circulate as people gather inside during the colder weather.
Even so, amid continual pressure from Maine’s hospitality industry, Mills has continued to loosen some restrictions — but tighten others — that were meant to keep the virus from spreading. In late September, she finally added Massachusetts to the small list of northeastern states whose residents are exempt from quarantining for two weeks or needing a negative COVID-19 test when they travel to Maine.
And last week, Mills announced that Maine would be entering the fourth stage of its economic reopening, including a loosening of seating limits in restaurants, churches and movie theaters that took effect Tuesday, and a Nov. 2 reopening of bars and tasting rooms for limited indoor service.
At the same time, Mills enacted stricter mandates for face masks. She required that many businesses all over Maine enforce the wearing of face coverings, after initially just requiring that of businesses in the state’s coastal counties and largest cities. She also extended the face covering requirement to private schools and municipal buildings.
This week, Shah expressed confidence that the balance of tighter and looser requirements will allow businesses to operate safely during the colder months. He has also said the state will continue to reevaluate those restrictions.
Even as bars — which were responsible for a number of outbreaks as they opened elsewhere in the country — reopen, Shah said, they “will have to introduce as much space as possible for folks” and won’t necessarily resemble their pre-pandemic selves.
Shah noted that the recent uptick in Maine’s new cases has been gradual, rather than abrupt, showing that cases have not been growing in the exponential manner other states in the South and Midwest have seen over the summer and fall. He was particularly concerned about the possibility of exponential growth last month, after the virus appeared to start spreading in southernmost York County following the outbreak at the jail.
“That is a testament to Maine people themselves for helping us all keep a lid on things,” Shah said. “You may recall this was something I was deeply concerned about in and around York County. Thus far, that has not happened, but to be sure, it could.”
York County continues to represent an outsize share of the state’s new cases, but its share of those cases has trended downward in recent weeks. It was responsible for 40.3 percent of new cases in September, but has been responsible for 24.7 percent of new cases since the start of the month. Androscoggin County, meanwhile, has come to represent a growing share of new cases in addition to Somerset and Kennebec counties.