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Gov. Janet Mills and her administration have generally done a good job managing a difficult, uncharted and shifting situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s not to say it’s been a perfect response at every stage over the past eight months, or that it can’t improve moving forward.
One area where the Mills administration can improve right now is with more clarity about how additional COVID-19 restrictions might materialize as case numbers spike and hospitalizations rise here in Maine.
Asked during a press briefing on Friday if it would be helpful for Mainers to know what might be heading their way in advance, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said that the state is constantly looking at steps other places have taken, but did not provide specifics. She said Monday that “nothing is off the table” in terms of measures to slow the spread of the virus, and has repeatedly stressed the state’s efforts to balance public health and economic concerns.
“There’s a lot of different measures that a lot of different states have taken. We’re looking at them all. It’s premature to announce which ones we’re going to adopt,” Lambrew said Friday.
It’s true the Mills administration can’t predict the future, but it can better educate the public about what additional restrictions the business community and all Maine people can possibly expect if Maine’s COVID-19 numbers keep getting worse. Businesses in particular would seem to benefit from a better sense of what public health data points could lead to increased restrictions, and what those restrictions could look like.
More clarity now about what could be on the horizon, even with the understanding that the public health realities can change rapidly, could give Maine businesses and Maine people more time to plan ahead.
Last Monday, Mills called public health data Maine’s “north star” in responding to the virus. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said the same day that there’s no specific threshold in terms of positivity rates or new cases that would automatically lead to changes in restrictions. We’ve had a hard time reconciling those two statements. So we asked the Mills administration about it.
“Throughout the reopening process, Maine has monitored epidemiological data, such as case trends and hospitalization rates, as well as health care and testing capacity, to inform decisions on lifting restrictions,” Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said in a statement. “It is a review of these metrics in their totality and in context, as opposed to the daily change of a single metric itself, that informs decisions.
“This includes taking into account the insight of Maine CDC epidemiologists; for example, into whether an increase in cases is related to a specific outbreak or focused in certain settings. This approach allows the Administration to exercise greater judgment and discretion to meet the interests of the state at that time. For example, even areas with lower positivity or new case rates could experience an increase in cases in settings of high concern, such as congregate living facilities. On the other hand, areas with higher case rates could still potentially show more stability in trends than areas with lower numbers.”
Even with that explanation, we think it would be helpful for the public to have a clearer sense of what public health scenarios would require different restrictions, even if this process is a complex moving target. As we said earlier in the pandemic, it’s critical that the public be brought along in the process. People need to trust scientists and public health experts, but the scientists and politicians also need to trust the general public and provide a clear picture of the processes they’re using to make decisions.
Crete said that the administration “aims to minimize economic disruption as much as possible” and “is always considering strategies to make it easier for businesses to stay afloat through these difficult times, including how we communicate with them.”
Providing more information about what future COVID-19 restrictions could look like is one instance where that communication could be improved and that disruption potentially minimized.
Added clarity about the timing and nature of potential future restrictions here in Maine is important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle right now. Above all, Maine people and Maine businesses need the federal government to end the uncertainty and deliver another round of meaningful economic stimulus to help weather the impacts of an ongoing pandemic.