Jennifer Conary looks away as she receives a COVID-19 vaccination, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Auburn.  Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Good morning from Augusta. Maine’s commission on paid family and medical leave meets at 9 a.m. today. Follow along here.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “If it’s clear, it’ll be great fun,” said John Meader, owner and educator at North Stars Planetarium in Fairfield, of an eclipse that will happen on Thursday, regardless of the weather. “But, statistically speaking, Maine is more often cloudy than not.” Here’s your soundtrack.

What we’re watching today

Maine is looking at a worse COVID-19 situation going into this winter than it was last year. The state set a new record for hospitalizations on Sunday with 249 virus patients in Maine hospitals, up from 248 on Friday. At the state’s worst point last winter, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 peaked at 207, and that was in January.

The high case rates, driven by transmission of the virus in rural, less vaccinated areas, are stressing hospitals across the state, with Maine Medical Center in Portland delaying some surgeries last week to ensure it would have beds open for COVID-19 patients. It comes a few weeks ahead of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, where travel and family gatherings increase the likelihood of additional transmission.

But Gov. Janet Mills and Maine health officials have largely shown reluctance to bring back the aggressive virus prevention measures used in 2020 despite the surge in cases this fall, citing the widespread availability of vaccines. While masks remain recommended in every Maine county under standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are not required.

Maine has instead aggressively pursued vaccinations, with one of the strictest vaccination requirements for health care workers in the U.S. going into effect at the end of October. Seventy-one percent of Mainers are fully vaccinated, the third-highest rate of any state, according to federal data. The state has also been among the quickest to vaccinate young children in the early going, with 11 percent of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 having received at least one dose.

But faced with a winter surge, other states have gone further. In the past week, three states — Colorado, California and New Mexico — authorized booster doses for all residents, bucking a recommendation from the U.S. CDC suggesting them only for medically compromised people and those in jobs at high risk of virus exposure. Each cited high case rates, saying widespread transmission of the virus effectively made every citizen at high risk. Doing so in Maine could encourage more people to get the additional shots by clearing up any uncertainty on whether they qualify.

While more than 166,000 Mainers have received boosters, uptake remains relatively low, even among the state’s most vulnerable groups. A bit shy of 40 percent of Mainers older than 70 have gotten the additional shot, according to state data. Increased availability — or accessibility — of boosters could be a more politically palatable tool than bringing back new restrictions. But whether the state will take definitive action to address high case numbers remains to be seen.

The Maine politics top 3

— “The Maine Army National Guard has a sexual misconduct problem,” Callie Ferguson and Josh Keefe, Bangor Daily News: “Lax enforcement of internal policies, lack of oversight, and retaliation against those who step forward with complaints have created a system in which victims believe they sometimes face harsher repercussions than the soldiers who assaulted them, the investigation found.”

— “The battle over Maine’s ‘right to food’ could be waged in cities and towns,” Sawyer Loftus, BDN: “The new constitutional amendment that earned more than 60 percent of the vote on Nov. 2 guarantees individuals ‘a natural, inherent and unalienable right’ to raise or harvest their own food within some limits. But what exactly that right means will likely remain unclear until there’s a legal challenge, which could land on the doorstep of local governments across Maine.”

— “A controversial progressive issue could be Maine’s next high-stakes referendum battle,” Caitlin Andrews, BDN: “Should they succeed, the question would serve as a temperature check for Mainers’ desire for a publicly funded health care system. It would be the biggest public vote on health care since voters approved the expansion of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, in 2017 and would have the potential to put in motion a dramatic change in the state’s health care landscape.”

Mills at White House for BIF signing

The Maine governor is traveling to Washington today to attend the signing ceremony for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. The $1 trillion package is expected to bring $2.4 million into Maine over the next five years.The sum will help Maine through its backlog of projects temporarily but will not solve the state’s long-standing funding challenges around infrastructure.

The money will still help address some of the areas Mills has made a centerpiece of her administration: it will send $100 million to the state for broadband expansion and $19 million for more electric vehicle charging stations. The visit also cements Mills and President Joe Biden’s support for each other ahead of the 2022 midterms, when Republicans will look for any opening to compare the leaders’ policies together unfavorably to place former Gov. Paul LePage in the Blaine House.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews and Jessica Piper. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

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