In this June 30, 2021, file photo, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at his final, regular pandemic press briefing in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Fully vaccinated Mainers should be prepared to resume wearing masks indoors as the delta variant of the coronavirus makes up a substantial portion of new COVID-19 cases, according to Maine’s top public health official.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah briefed members of the Bangor City Council on Monday evening as the state continues to see a rise in new COVID-19 cases.

“We probably need to be prepared, even for fully vaccinated folks, for the time being, to go back to wearing masks in indoor settings,” Shah told councilors during a workshop.  

In addition, he said, vaccinated children should prepare for the possibility of wearing masks when they return to school in the fall. 

The delta variant, first detected in India, is now the most dominant strain of COVID-19 worldwide. Public health experts have found it’s much more contagious than previous coronavirus strains, posing risks especially for the unvaccinated.  

In Maine, the delta variant represented nearly 48 percent of virus samples tested this month as of July 23, according to the state CDC. 

While new COVID-19 cases have been rising in Maine, state officials have not said they’re weighing the return of indoor mask requirements.  Maine’s mask requirement for vaccinated residents ended on May 24, and Gov. Janet Mills’ pandemic state of emergency ended on June 30, ending the governor’s ability to reimpose mask requirements. 

State and federal health officials continue to recommend that unvaccinated people wear masks, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday recommended that vaccinated people in COVID-19 hot spots resume wearing masks indoors. In Maine, that hot spot designation would include York and Piscataquis counties. The CDC also recommended universal masking at schools, regardless of teachers’ and students’ vaccination status.

Federal mask requirements remain in place for all forms of public transportation, including buses and planes. Masking remains optional in schools.

Mills said later Tuesday she had directed the state CDC and Department of Health and Human Services to review the federal CDC’s latest guidelines on face coverings. She expected that review would be completed Wednesday, after which she would announce any changes to the state’s public health recommendations.

Another cause for concern has been low vaccination rates in some parts of Maine, Shah said. 

While about 60 percent of the state’s population is now vaccinated, vaccination rates by county range from a low of 47.7 percent in Somerset County to a high of 71.5 percent in Cumberland County. Some 54.5 percent of Penobscot County residents are vaccinated, according to the Maine CDC. In the zip code that covers Bangor, Glenburn, Hermon and Veazie, 83 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.

Vaccine rates have remained low among younger Mainers ages 16 to 29.

If this continues, Shah said, Maine residents may need to start ramping up protective measures such as masking and social distancing that waned earlier this summer when caseloads were lower.

“We need to be ready to surge back up, whether it’s around PPE, whether it’s around vaccinations, testing, as well as case investigations, and planning for those possibilities,” Shah said. 

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.