Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine – Maine may automate parts of its COVID-19 case investigation process after a backlog of positive tests increased by 10,000 in a week, the starkest example to date of the state’s struggle to accurately record the recent omicron surge.

The backlog, which grew from 46,000 to 56,000 since last week, means the state has been severely undercounting daily case totals that have been perhaps the most prominent measure of the pandemic. All Mainers who tested positive have been notified of their results, but the state workers who comb the cases to check for duplicates have been deluged in recent weeks.

The counts are part of a formula used by the federal government to allocate monoclonal antibodies, a key COVID-19 treatment that Gov. Janet Mills lobbied the White House to get more of this weekend. It illustrated the lingering importance of case counts even though public health experts are turning away from them as an accurate measure of the pandemic’s severity.

Maine expects to get more doses than they were previously going forward, but the state is committed to clearing the backlog, top health officials told reporters on Wednesday. There is still no timeframe for that change. Daily case undercounts are expected to continue for now.

“We still want to know who’s been affected, where they live, where they’ve been, things of that nature,” said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The system would handle cases now checked by state workers. A program would take each positive test, check to make sure the same person has not tested positive recently and search a database for the person’s ZIP code data. That information would then be sent to the U.S. CDC.

Other states have implemented similar systems to check cases, including New Jersey, which removed more than 10,000 cases — or just 1.2 percent — of the total caseload to that point in April 2021.

Despite the backlog, Shah said the state is not flagging in its ability to inform people of when they are sick. As long as people are aware they are sick, he said they have the information needed to change their daily habits and prevent them from spreading the virus further.

“What matters is getting people access to testing and getting them the results. The backlog is not affected by any of that,” he said. “Really, truly the backlog is something that happens on computers at Maine CDC. It doesn’t affect what’s going on with individuals out there.”