Gov. Janet Mills signaled Monday that she will likely extend the statewide stay-at-home order set to expire Thursday, but that she also may unveil details of her plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy on Tuesday.

Mills did not give a timetable for any reopening or discuss specific metrics that must be met before relaxing the severe restrictions on businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the governor said her administration will likely move away from the essential and nonessential classifications currently used.

Instead, the pending plan will be based on whether businesses can operate safely within public health guidelines by minimizing in-person interactions between customers and employees, “even in some limited, maybe non-traditional fashion.”

“Those businesses will be among the first to reopen. Those that cannot do that will be among the last,” Mills said during Monday’s daily coronavirus briefing. “At any point, if the loosening of certain restrictions causes a spike in COVID-19 cases, we will be closing the door, the restrictions will have to be reinstated and we will try again.”

Maine recorded one additional death – a man in his 70s from Kennebec County – from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus as well as eight additional confirmed cases, according to the latest figures from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday.

To date, the Maine CDC has confirmed 1,023 cases and 51 deaths from the viral disease. After accounting for the 51 deaths and the 549 people who have recovered from the disease, there were a total of 423 active cases in the state, which is a decrease of 10 since Sunday.

Maine has reported a fraction of the infections and deaths being seen in more populated states to the south, such as Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. But public health officials caution that Maine’s figures show only a portion of the virus in Maine because of limited testing. And with the number of new cases and deaths fluctuating daily, it is difficult to impossible to pinpoint where on the disease “curve” Maine sits.

The Maine CDC also reported that 39 people were hospitalized from the virus – the same number as Sunday – with 16 of those individuals being treated in intensive care units. Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said there were no new outbreaks at nursing homes or long-term care facilities, which account for roughly half of all deaths statewide.

Maine had 330 critical care beds on Monday, of which 139 were available, the CDC reported on its website. In addition, there are 315 total ventilators, of which 298 were available. The state also had 394 alternative ventilators.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, who has been the public face of the state’s coronavirus response, did not participate in Monday’s the briefing because of a non-COVID family matter, according to staff. Shah is expected to rejoin the briefings on Tuesday.

Thursday is the tentative end date of the statewide stay-at-home order restricting Mainers’ travels outside of the home except for essential activities such as grocery shopping, going to the doctor, caring for a family member or livestock, exercising or commuting for an essential job.

Mills said Monday that she expected to announce her decision on the timing of the stay-at-home order on Tuesday.

“That decision, however, will be based on fact, on science and on medical expertise,” Mills said. “As of now, some type of extension seems likely because it seems warranted as we continue to turn the tide against this virus. The steps we are taking are having an effect, they are working. But we still need to stay the course.”

Maine’s economy, as with every state across the nation, is buckling under the social distancing and stay-at-home orders meant to reduce transmission of the disease. More than 100,000 people have applied for unemployment assistance since the pandemic began, overwhelming the Maine Department of Labor system and leaving tens of thousands in limbo as they await word on their requests for assistance.

One recent study suggested Maine is the most economically vulnerable state in the nation because of the high percentage of small businesses, large elderly population, and dependence on tourism and retail activity, among other factors.

On Monday, the Mills administration froze all non-emergency hiring and spending in state government. Additionally, the two committees that study the flow of tax dollars and other revenue sources to the state – the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission and the Revenue Forecasting Committee – will meet several months early to assess the impacts of what could be the worst recession in decades.

With Maine’s per capita infection rates among the lowest in the nation, Mills is under increasing pressure to lift restrictions and closure orders on nonessential businesses. At the same time, public health officials nationwide are warning that reopening too early could cause a spike in illnesses and deaths.

Many public health experts say those conditions must include: a two-week decline in cases, deaths and hospitalizations; widespread access to testing for the public; and a robust track-and-trace system for identifying and monitoring people who have been exposed.

Asked if Mills agreed that those conditions must be met before Maine reopens, spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said the governor, along with CDC and DHHS staff, have been considering a wide range of measures, including those three and the “Federal Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.” Those three measures will play an important role, Crete said.

“However, other metrics must also be considered, such as whether Maine’s hospital systems have adequate surge capacity, particularly when it comes to the availability of intensive care unit beds and critical equipment like ventilators,” Crete said in a statement. “The goal of the administration is to apply these important metrics and considerations to Maine-specific data and strategy.”

On Monday, Mills reiterated her four “guiding principles” to gradually restarting the economy: protecting public health, maintaining health care readiness, building reliable and accessible testing, prioritizing public-private cooperation.

She also continues to discuss Maine’s plan with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott about a more regional approach to reopening their economies. While Mills said on Monday that “we are not coordinating in an official fashion,” the governors are bouncing ideas off one another and discussing timelines for relaxing restrictions in order to be consistent, if not identical.

“We are talking and I think we are on the same page in many, many respects,” Mills said.

Some governors have extended stay-at-home orders in their states as the virus continues to spread and cause additional deaths. At the same time, other governors are relaxing restrictions – to the dismay of many health officials – in order to reopen aspects of the badly damaged economy.

Governors nationwide have also called on the federal government to help expand testing capacity so that states can better detect how widespread the virus is in the population. Mills said she believes Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the Trump administration’s COVID-19 task force, is hearing that message consistently.

“We all believe that universal testing or more comprehensive testing is extremely important, not just to tamp down the virus now, but to prevent an outbreak later this year, this fall or this coming winter,” Mills said.

An analysis of hospital data suggests that social and physical distancing practices are helping to reduce transmission rates and, therefore, are decreasing coronavirus-related hospitalizations. At the same time, the virus continues to exact a heavy toll on nursing homes and among Mainers over age 70, who make up the vast majority of deaths.

The Maine CDC building on Water Street in Augusta was closed over the weekend for cleaning and disinfection after an outside vendor who had been in the building earlier in the week tested positive for COVID-19. DHHS officials said only one Maine CDC employee had considerable contact with the vendor and that person was taking precautions. An agency spokesman said Shah’s absence from Monday’s briefing was “unrelated” to the closure or the infected vendor.

The closure did not affect COVID-19 testing analysis or epidemiology work because those operations happen at another building. The Water Street offices reopened by Monday.


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