Maine Mall Road in South Portland, usually full of vehicles, had no traffic Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine recorded 38 new cases of COVID-19 but no new deaths on Friday, as the state’s expanding testing program has led to an increase in the number of confirmed cases during the past week.

The state also announced on Friday a $6.6 million initiative paid for with mostly federal funding that will provide six months of access to internet connections, tablets and other technology for all Maine students who have been engaged in distance learning because of coronavirus-driven school shutdowns. Access to technology has been restricted for some students because of family income limitations or a lack of suitable internet connections in rural areas.

“Now 100 percent of those students having reported through their schools a lack of connectivity have been connected through this effort,” Pender Makin, Maine’s education commissioner, said during a news briefing.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35 more people have recovered from the disease, bringing the total recoveries to 993. Overall, there have been 1,603 cases of COVID-19 and 69 deaths.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the state’s expanded testing capabilities will help its strategy for responding to the virus, he sounded a note of caution about tourism.

The Maine CDC reported this week that testing volume in the state has more than doubled – from roughly 3,000 to 6,424 during the past week – as the state lab as well as national laboratories run more tests. The Maine CDC expects to have the capacity to analyze an additional 5,000 test samples per week – starting Monday – as part of a partnership with the Westbrook-based veterinary diagnostic firm Idexx.

The Mills administration has pushed ahead with the phased reopening of the state’s economy, announcing Thursday that hotels and other lodging businesses can begin accepting reservations from residents or non-residents for June 1 or later. But that announcement did not include changes to a controversial 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors.

Shah said despite Maine’s expanded testing capabilities, which will increase the state’s  ability to find the disease and contain it – state officials are still working on a strategy for tourism season. Millions of tourists flock to Maine every summer.

“It’s important for us to continue looking at the overall prevalence of disease in neighboring states as well as other states which we know visitors come from to Maine,” Shah said. “Every state in the Northeast has a higher prevalence of disease, of COVID-19, than the state of Maine.”

Massachusetts has 80,497 cases and more than 5,300 deaths, giving it a death rate about 80 times greater than Maine’s. Massachusetts’ population is about 5.5 times larger than Maine’s population of 1.3 million.

Shah also announced that the state received an additional shipment of remdesivir, an anti-viral drug that has shown some effectiveness in reducing hospital stays. Maine received a shipment from the federal government on Friday that would serve about 35 patients, on top of an earlier shipment for 50 patients. Maine Medical Center is participating in a national clinical trial on the effectiveness of remdesivir, which has received emergency FDA approval for use in hospitals.

Maine currently has 35 hospitalized patients, down from 37 on Thursday.

Technology initiative

The pandemic has left many students without a way to connect with their teachers.

“This pandemic and the educational disruption brought to light the extreme inequities that exist across our state,” Makin said. “The emergency provision of connectivity to all students allows for educational continuity.”

According to a news release, “The Maine Department of Education (Maine DOE) has acquired 14,494 service contracts through three different service providers, nearly all of which are for WiFi-enabled Samsung Galaxy Tablets. Through one of the service providers, DOE was also able to order MiFi, a wireless router that acts as a mobile WiFi hotspot, to fulfill internet-only needs. To fulfill the device only needs, Maine DOE was able to order 7,450 Chromebooks.”

Makin said the state and school districts are working toward a fall reopening of school, but they are planning for a several scenarios,  including a full reopening, partial reopening or going back to school and having to close again if there’s a resurgence of the virus.

Outbreak at Kittery care facility

Shah also reported a new outbreak at Durgin Pines, a long-term care facility in Kittery, with three people testing positive.

“Our team of epidemiologists is touching base with that facility to make sure they have all the public health guidance they need,” Shah said, adding that Durgin Pines recently received an extra shipment of protective gear.

The total of 38 new cases statewide comes after 50 new cases were reported Thursday, which represented the largest jump in a week and occurred at a time when the Maine CDC lab is significantly increasing its testing capacity.

The seven-day average of new cases declined from 33.6 on Thursday to 32.7 on Friday.

About half of the 69 deaths have been residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. After accounting for those deaths and the 993 people who have recovered from the disease, there were 541 active cases, an increase of three from Thursday. Two weeks ago there were 411 active cases, a number that has risen in response to expanded testing after outbreaks at nursing homes and a Portland chicken-processing plant.

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.

Maine also has 156 intensive care beds available at hospitals out of a total of 357, and 248 ventilators available out of a total of 307.

 

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