AUGUSTA, Maine — Federal and state health officials recommended on Tuesday that people in areas with higher COVID-19 transmission wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, a designation that includes York and Piscataquis counties.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a news conference that the agency’s recommendations on where people should continue mask wearing is for counties with more than 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week and in all schools. She specifically cited a growing but still relatively small number of cases in vaccinated people and the dominance of the delta variant as the reason for the agency’s shift.
The Maine CDC mirrored those recommendations afterward. Gov. Janet Mills said in a Tuesday statement that the state would announce any policy changes Wednesday.
“In the meantime, we continue to strongly urge all Maine people to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated,” she said.
York and Piscataquis counties are the only ones affected in Maine, per the U.S. CDC’s tracker. The two areas have seen the pandemic play out in vastly different ways. While York was among the counties hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic and has the second-highest overall case rate, Piscataquis, the state’s least populous county, was the last one in Maine where the virus was found in 2020 and has recorded more than a quarter of its cases since April 1 of this year.
The two regions are also in different places when it comes to vaccinations. York County has seen 59 percent of its eligible population receive its final dose, making it the sixth-most vaccinated county in the state. Piscataquis, in contrast, has seen only 49.6 percent of its residents receive their final dose, putting it second lowest above Somerset County.
Reported infections have risen significantly across Maine over the past two weeks, although they remain lower than when Maine lifted its mask mandate in late May. At that time, all but two of the state’s 16 counties — Knox and Washington — had seen more than 50 new cases per 100,000 people over the past week, according to federal data.
Case rates statewide remain lower than much of the rest of the country. Health officials estimate the more contagious delta variant, while making up the bulk of new COVID-19 cases across the country, has a smaller presence in the state so far but could be dangerous as it is more contagious than the original strain.
Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah had predicted the variant would have a bigger presence in the state. He told Bangor city councilors Monday night that vaccinated people should prepare to mask up again. On Tuesday, he said in a series of Twitter posts that people should “consider” wearing a mask if they are in the two affected counties.
Mills ended Maine’s pandemic-related state of emergency on June 30, meaning she no longer has the authority to unilaterally reimpose mask requirements. Mills ended the mask requirement for indoor public spaces in May.
For more cautious Mainers, the news will not change much. Susan Sanborn, 72, of York, said she has consistently worn a mask since the start of the pandemic because a kidney transplant and a prior heart attack made her vulnerable to the virus. Even though she is fully vaccinated, she still is wary of going into stores and will only eat in outdoor restaurants.
“I want to be careful and I want to be around,” she said. “I’ve been telling people that if I die, it’s going to be because of kidney issues. I refuse to die because of COVID.”
BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.