An old truck along Buxton Road in Saco displays a sign thanking those who still going to jobs during the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine reported 38 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and one new death as the state released data showing it has more than doubled its testing during the past week. Meanwhile, Gov. Janet Mills extended the state of civil emergency by a month, to June 11.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reported sharp declines in childhood vaccination rates among families in a state program.

The surge in testing comes ahead of a new partnership with Idexx expected to come online by Friday or Monday that could drastically increase the number of tests given.

Maine performed 6,424 tests on people suspected of having COVID-19 over the past week, compared to a weekly average of about 2,800 to 3,000 tests over the previous month. The Idexx partnership, when it is online, will expand the state’s testing capacity by an additional 5,000 tests per week.

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said the increase in testing during the past week can be attributed to  universal testing in a larger number of congregate settings and increased capacity at national laboratories that process some tests, results of which are reported to the Maine CDC.

“We are really ramping up the overall testing capacity as we move toward more and more testing in congregate settings,” Shah said.

Testing and tracing close contacts of exposed people are key components of a strategy to contain the virus and allow the state to rely less on physical distancing measures. If most of those infected can be identified, and those people can be isolated, it will help halt the spread of the virus.

But as testing increases, more cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified. But when testing is increased, initially state health workers are likely to find more cases of the disease.

Maine has now seen 1,515 cases of COVID-19 and 66 deaths. The death reported Wednesday was a woman in her 90s from Cumberland County, Shah said.

Mills’ extension of the civil emergency does not change the state’s gradual re-opening plan or affect the “stay-at-home” orders that are set to expire May 31.

“The State of Civil Emergency allows state government to deploy all available resources to protect the health and safety of Maine people and to respond quickly and as-needed to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mills said in a statement. “It also allows us to continue to draw critical federal resources that help us equip frontline workers with needed protective equipment and to use federal resources to support the state’s response.”

Meanwhile, 943 people have recovered from the disease, an increase of 30 since Tuesday. The number of active cases Wednesday stood at 506, an increase of seven since a day earlier, according to data released by the Maine CDC. Two weeks ago, there were 389 active cases, or 117 fewer.

However, the CDC has increased testing following outbreaks at several congregate care facilities and a Portland meat-packing plant, so case numbers were expected to rise.

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

Another closely-watched data point is the percent of positive tests among all tests conducted. The percent-positive rate declined to 4.2 percent during the past week of testing. The rate had been at 5 percent to 6 percent since the beginning of April, according to The COVID-19 Tracking Project.

The lower the percent-positive rate, the more likely that state health workers are finding most cases of the disease, which makes tracing close contacts and isolating people more effective at controlling its spread.

“Our goal is to replicate what South Korea has done, with a positive rate of 2 to 3 percent,” Shah said. South Korea is considered a model in how to respond to the outbreak, and has a much lower death rate per capita than the United States and many other countries.

The state is also changing how it reports negative tests, from the number of individuals who have been tested to the total number of tests administered. The state reported two numbers on Wednesday for negative tests: 28,257 individuals who have been tested, and 33,035 total negative tests. Some people are tested multiple times. Moving forward, the state will report total tests, in part because that is how most states are reporting the numbers, Shah said.

Shah said the Vaccines for Children program, a state program primarily for children who covered by Medicaid insurance, is seeing sharp declines in vaccinations as parents worry about bringing children in for routine appointments during the pandemic. Pediatricians are taking extra precautions, such as separating patients who are ill from well-child visitors, and giving vaccinations in parking lots, but many parents are still anxious. Shah said parents should feel encouraged about the safety precautions and keep their children’s vaccinations up-to-date.

“Take steps to avoid these dangers of preventable diseases by making sure your children are on track with vaccinations,” Shah said. Some pediatricians have previously told the Press Herald that vaccinations are dropping in part because pediatricians are postponing booster shots for older children until later in the summer.

Wednesday’s case numbers were higher than those from Tuesday, when 15 additional cases were reported and no new deaths. Forty one people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, an increase of seven since Tuesday, including 20 in critical care and seven on a ventilator.

Maine had a total of 361 critical care beds Wednesday, of which 159 were available, and a total of 313 ventilators, 226 of which were available. There were also 416 alternative ventilators available.

One of Maine’s new cases involves a patient at Durgin Pines, a Kittery long-term care facility, who tested positive this week. The patient was immediately isolated in a unit at the facility set aside for COVID-19 patients, which had been empty, said Biddeford-based geriatrician Dr. Jabbar Fazeli.

Because it’s only one patient, and not at least three, it doesn’t qualify as an outbreak, meaning the CDC has not begun universal testing there. However, Fazeli said, all staff members who might have come in contact with the patient will be tested, along with other residents who live in the same unit. Durgin Pines has 26 rooms for rehabilitation patients and 55 rooms for long-term care.

Fazeli, also spokesman for the Maine Medical Directors Association which represents physicians and other staff members at long-term care facilities, said current CDC guidelines would not call for testing the patient who tested positive. She only had a low-grade fever and no other symptoms.

Maine received a shipment of remdesivir Tuesday that was immediately distributed to hospitals throughout Maine. There was enough in the shipment to treat 50 patients, and there are currently 41 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment in Maine. Shah said Wednesday he expects another shipment of remdesivir soon, perhaps within a week.

Remdesivir was the subject of a human clinical trial by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that showed an average reduction in hospitalization from 15 days for patients who were given a placebo to 11 days for patients who were given the drug. Maine Medical Center in Portland participated in the clinical trial, the results of which were released in late April.

Because of the public health emergency, the Food and Drug Administration sped up approval of the drug, and it is now being made available nationally. Scientists say patients benefit from the treatment, but not so much that it should dramatically alter the way governments respond to the pandemic.

Shah said when the state received the shipment, it was distributed to hospitals across Maine “within the hour.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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