In this April 29, 2020, file photo, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, right, speaks as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci listens during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

The White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended Maine take additional measures to control the spread of the coronavirus as case numbers have entered a “red zone” for the first time in the pandemic but remain lower here than nearly every other state.

The coronavirus pandemic has surged in Maine over the past several weeks, with a record 554 new cases reported Wednesday. The seven-day average of new cases sits at 409, up from just 31 two months ago. Hospitalizations have hit record highs in recent days and December is on track to be the deadliest month of the pandemic so far.

The White House task force, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, has been issuing weekly reports this fall that analyze each state’s coronavirus-related data and make recommendations. The task force has not been publishing reports publicly, but they have been obtained and published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

The latest report underscores the severity of the virus situation in Maine and the U.S. entering winter, but sidesteps some of the tricky politics, including outgoing President Donald Trump’s skepticism of coronavirus-related restrictions and the lack of stimulus that Gov. Janet Mills and other governors have cited as a barrier to reinstituting restrictions from earlier in the pandemic.

Maine moved into the “red zone” in terms of case counts for the first time in the report dated Dec. 6 as weekly new cases surpassed 100 per 100,000 people — meaning one out of every 1,000 people in Maine tested positive for the virus in the week prior. The task force recommended stronger measures to curb the virus in light of that increase.

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“Mitigation efforts must increase, including the implementation of key state and local policies with an additional focus on uniform behavioral change including masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene, no indoor gatherings outside of immediate households, and aggressive testing to find the asymptomatic individuals responsible for the majority of infectious spread,” the report said.

The report also noted that many state and local governments had not brought back virus-related restrictions from earlier in the pandemic even as the situation has grown more dire, contrasting that with an improvement in virus conditions in European countries that had implemented stronger mitigation measures of late.

The task force recommended increased enforcement of mask wearing and encouraging Mainers to report businesses that did not comply with masking or social distancing requirements. Mills, a Democrat, ordered businesses to enforce mask mandates last week, but has balked at further closures, pointing to lack of federal relief as one reason.

As of the first week in December, only Hawaii was not in the “red zone” for cases, according to the task force report. Although coronavirus cases in Maine have surged over the past month, the rate of new cases here still remains significantly below the national average.

Maine and the U.S. got positive virus-related news this week with the first round of vaccines distributed to hospitals on Monday. However, the task force’s report cautioned against counting on a vaccine to slow the spread, saying vaccinations would not have a significant effect on hospitalizations or fatalities until 100 million Americans with pre-existing health conditions were fully immunized, which would likely be late spring.

“Behavioral change and aggressive mitigation policies are the only widespread prevention tools that we have to address this winter surge,” the report said.

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