Maine’s top public health official took a grim tone Friday afternoon in saying the record-setting spread of the coronavirus the state has seen in recent days could be a new normal, and that it could even get worse.
With so many new cases daily, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah promised a number of changes that could involve scaling back the state’s case investigations to people at highest risk from coronavirus complications and those likely to spread the virus to the most people.
“We have to focus our resources on individual cases where we can do the most public health good,” he said. “This will sadly entail making some very difficult choices.”
The changes are expected to be announced Monday.
Maine has already scaled back its efforts to contact-trace new cases, through which public health workers ask newly infected people questions to determine how they may have contracted the virus and to whom they may have spread it. Other states have also had to make those decisions — neighboring New Hampshire in November limited its contact tracing to those who are especially vulnerable to the virus, such as older adults and health care workers.
The news was coupled with dark milestones for the state.
Maine’s positivity rate — the portion of coronavirus tests coming back positive — has jumped from 2.8 percent to 4.9 percent in the past two weeks, a sign that the virus’ spread is continuing to accelerate. Maine broke its record of new daily cases on Thursday, when it recorded 349 new cases Thursday, and it came close to recording 300 on Friday, when it saw 292 more people test positive. Shah said his agency is beginning to see cases connected to the Thanksgiving holiday, connected to smaller family gatherings.
He described the level of community transmission in the state as “ferocious” and a likely signal that things will get worse in the state as the colder months arrive.
“I fear that this may sadly be our new normal,” he said.
Maine has rolled out restrictions meant to curb the virus’ spread, such as requiring masks in any public space and extending a curfew for businesses where people tend to congregate through the new year. But it has held back on more aggressive restrictions such as business closures amid a lack of new federal relief that propped up businesses and unemployed workers throughout the year.
Also on Friday, Shah announced new quarantine definitions to align with federal standards, shortening the period during which the state instructs a close contact of someone who has tested positive to 10 days from 14.
In addition, the state placed its first order for 12,675 vaccine doses as it prepares for the initial distribution of a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, Shah said. The order is for the state’s expected allotment of that vaccine, which Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday said was “far less than what is needed” in Maine.
Those first doses are destined for five hospitals in the state as well as the Maine CDC’s central warehouse. Maine is prioritizing hospitals that have enough of the ultra-cold storage capacity needed to store the Pfizer vaccine.
In another sign of the virus’ rapid spread, Shah announced 13 new outbreaks opened since Thursday, including at Acadia Hospital in Bangor, with four connected cases. The threshold for an outbreak is three or more related cases. The hospital, which specializes in mental health care, has had one or two COVID-19 patients at times over the past week, and it hasn’t had any since Tuesday, according to Northern Light Health, its parent organization.
Some 164 people across Maine were hospitalized Friday, the highest total yet during the pandemic.