AUGUSTA, Maine — The next six weeks will be crucial for Maine to contain a rising level of COVID-19 transmission that is happening just before all adults become eligible for vaccinations and just weeks before the tourism season’s late-May start.
The entire Northeast is seeing a steady uptick in cases increasingly concentrated in younger people as older ones get vaccinated. At the same time, governors in states including Maine that have generally managed the pandemic well have relaxed economic restrictions in a bet on the fast-increasing federal vaccine supply that remains the best hope for a return to normal.
But any of the first Mainers 16 and older eligible for shots on Wednesday must wait three or four weeks for their second dose and another two weeks after that before they are fully immune. A continued increase in cases during that time could complicate Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to lift travel and indoor capacity restrictions further in May ahead of Memorial Day.
The situation presents “a race against time” for the state, said Dr. Peter Millard, an epidemiologist who teaches at the University of New England and worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If we can get a lot of people in there and get them vaccinated, then I think we might win the race, but it’s coming to a close call,” he said.
Maine reported 401 new cases on Friday in the biggest one-day increase since early February, though many were from a review of tests from the past 10 days. The seven-day average of new cases rose to 228 by Thursday, up from where the average stood in late February, when a massive winter spike was abating, according to a New York Times tracker.
People younger than 30 are making up an increasing share of cases while people over 50 are making up a shrinking share. While Maine and other Northeast states are seeing cases increase, deaths remain low. All of that is largely due to the vaccination progress so far.
By Thursday, roughly a third of Mainers had received at least their first dose of a vaccine as Maine’s inoculations outpaced all but four other states’ by that measure, Bloomberg News reported. Nearly two-thirds of doses went to Mainers over 60. All people over 50, plus teachers and some frontline workers, are eligible now. On Wednesday, more than 450,000 unvaccinated people will be eligible.
Mills, a Democrat, kicked off her economic reopening plan last month by allowing people from all New England states to travel to Maine with no test or quarantine. Bars and taprooms were able to open indoors last week. On May 1, people from all states except those on a new exclusionary list will be able to come and capacity limits for businesses and outdoor and indoor gatherings will increase on May 24.
Other governors in the region have also accelerated reopenings, with Mills and counterparts saying they could reinstitute restrictions if things worsen. Robert Horsburgh, an epidemiology professor at Boston University, thinks Mills and Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, where experts worry about a new surge, should reinstitute some restrictions now.
Noting that the current case numbers reflect transmission from two weeks ago, he said there is likely more now. Horsburgh said governors should rein in indoor dining and other activities where people cannot stay masked as cases continue to go up. If they do not, he said people should “suck it up for another six weeks” and limit activities themselves.
“They need to read the writing on the wall. It’s not working. This amount of opening is not working,” Horsburgh said of governors. “The disease is spreading, and if they don’t do something, we’re going to have another big spike like we did in November.”
The Mills administration has stuck by the reopening plan. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell cited the steady hospitalization rate and falling death rate to say Maine’s vaccine and health strategies are working, adding that the state will continue to evaluate measures “based on the latest public health metrics and trends.”
While studies have shown indoor dining at restaurants is among the riskiest activities for transmission, they have not been tied to outbreaks in Maine lately. Greg Dugal, director of government affairs at HospitalityMaine, said he heard of no particular problems in restaurants since reopening accelerated and that customers are sticking to health rules.
“We just feel like we need to stay the course and do the things that we’ve been told that we need to do, and of course hope that people see the light and get vaccinated,” he said.