Maine health officials said Friday that eight more people had tested positive for coronavirus, raising to 56 the total number of confirmed or suspected cases in the state roughly one week after the first positive test.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while 2,264 people have tested negative, the continued spread of coronavirus means Mainers should continue to vigilantly practice social distancing and good hygiene.

The importance of this guidance was reinforced Friday afternoon when OceanView at Falmouth reported that a fifth person at the retirement community had tested positive. OceanView now has five cases, including two people who are hospitalized at Maine Medical Center in Portland and three people who are recuperating at home. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

A spokeswoman for OceanView said the fifth case was connected to the first two cases reported this week, which were the result of close household contact. It wasn’t clear Friday night whether the positive test at OceanView was among the positive cases announced by the CDC earlier in the day.

The Maine CDC continues to see evidence of “community transmission” in Cumberland County – which accounts for at least 35 of the 56 cases – and five Mainers are hospitalized from the COVID-19 disease caused by coronavirus. Speaking during his daily briefing, Shah said it was too early to say where Maine stands on the coronavirus outbreak.

“The fact is this is a very fast-moving situation and as much as I might hope that this is a result of flattening the curve, it very well may not be,” Shah said. “So it really is too early to read into anything because the trend is still going upward. Only time will tell, in retrospect, whether this is a sign or just a temporary change.”

Shah said many Mainers appear to be heeding the call to stay home, if possible, and practice “social distancing” when out in the community. Yet the impacts of the virus continue to deepen.

Many school districts in Maine – including Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Augusta, Bangor, Lewiston and Saco – announced they were keeping school buildings closed until at least April 27. Elsewhere, the governors of New York, California and Connecticut ordered most residents to stay indoors, with more states expected to follow suit.

COVID-19 typically presents as flu-like symptoms – such as fever, sore throat and coughing – that do not pose a serious threat to healthy individuals. But statistics indicate that roughly 20 percent of patients endure more severe complications potentially leading to hospitalization, with the elderly or those with chronic health problems most at risk.

Nationwide, there were 15,219 total cases and 201 deaths from COVID-19 as of Friday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is roughly double the number of cases and deaths reported on Tuesday. Worldwide, the virus has sickened more than 209,000 and killed 8,778, according to the World Health Organization.

Maine recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 12. Since then, the number of cases has climbed daily as testing ramps up statewide, resulting in schools transitioning to distance learning, the widespread cancellation of events and a state-ordered halt of all dine-in service at restaurants and bars across Maine.

Shah noted that the Maine CDC reported 52 cases Thursday but 56 on Friday despite the addition of eight new cases. He attributed that discrepancy to the fact that three individuals were non-Maine residents whose cases are now attributed to their home states – which he said is standard protocol to avoid counting cases twice – while an initially positive test run by a commercial lab came back negative when double-checked by Maine CDC.

One person in Maine has recovered from COVID-19, the CDC reported.

There are ongoing concerns in Maine and nationwide about the availability of testing kits as well as the supply of personal protective equipment, such as respirator masks and gloves. Shah said the Maine CDC had the partial “ingredients” needed to conduct roughly 600 more tests and just received a shipment of the additional ingredients, such as enzymes, that are required to run tests.

“This will be a challenge for us, not just in Maine but nationwide, in the availability of these reagents,” Shah said. “But bottom line, we are concerned about it.”

While Maine was distributing 4,000 gloves, 700 face shields and 2,600 respirator masks around the state Friday, Shah said Maine continues to press for additional supplies from the federal government, has ordered additional supplies from the Maine CDC’s contractor and seeks alternative sources.

On Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills sent a letter  to Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar requesting the federal government speed up the release of personal protective equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile.

“In the setting of a national emergency, states should not have to struggle with equipping front-line providers with PPE given the supplies on hand at the SNS,” Mills wrote. “At present, the demand from providers and first responders in our state will soon outstrip our available supply, even with the initial distribution.”

Hospitals reported to the Maine CDC that 56 of the state’s 135 intensive care unit beds were available as of Friday. Additionally, Shah said there are 218 respiratory ventilators available statewide – out of 291 units – and that the state has requested another 300 ventilators from the federal government.

But Shah stressed that is “just a snapshot of a very fast-moving train” and that those numbers can change rapidly. Asked to put the number of available ICU beds in context, Shah said “this is about what we would have expected to see” given Maine is at or near the typical peak of the flu season.

Earlier this week, the Mills administration used its emergency powers to prohibit all nonessential, non-work gatherings of more than 10 people, including “civil, public, leisure and faith-based events.” Additionally, Mills recommended that all nonessential “public-facing” businesses, such as fitness centers and shopping malls, close for two weeks as a way to limit community transmission of the virus.

But unlike in other states, where governors are ordering most people to stay inside, Mills and other state officials are encouraging Mainers to get outside, albeit in small numbers and safely separated from each other.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife announced Friday that recreational fishing licenses will not be needed to fish on any inland waters through April 30. Also, DIF&W will allow fishing on any open waters effective immediately – notwithstanding any specific prohibitions on those waterways – rather than waiting until April 1.

“Remember what we can control: ourselves, our love for another, and our love for this shared state we are so lucky to call home,” Mills said in her weekly radio address. “Today, we go outside and enjoy the state parks, go to a beach, climb a mountain – whether it’s Bald or Battie or Bradbury – enjoy the outdoors, keeping your social (physical) distance.”

Shah also repeated his calls on Mainers to check in on one another to prevent social isolation.

“I’m asking everyone to distance themselves physically but not socially, not emotionally and not psychologically,” Shah said. “Even while we may physically distance ourselves, it is also the time to be more emotionally and socially connected than ever before.”

The county-by-county breakdown of coronavirus cases is as follows: 35 in Cumberland; four in Kennebec; four in Lincoln, one in Oxford, two in Penobscot, five in York. Cases in two counties are still under investigation and one case that was initially attributed to Hancock County was reassigned to Penobscot County because that is where the patient lives.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this story.

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