As the state has begun loosening its restrictions and businesses have begun reopening, people like this man crossing Oak Street in Portland have begun to venture out. Though the state has tripled its testing capacity, the Maine CDC is still recommending that people wear masks in situations where physical distancing isn’t possible. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Mills administration expanded access to coronavirus tests across the state Monday as health officials reported more potential COVID-19 outbreaks and an additional death.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is in the final stages of an expansion that will allow the state to conduct up to 7,000 tests per week for COVID-19, which is more than triple the capacity of a few weeks ago.

As a result, Gov. Janet Mills announced that doctors can now submit test samples for anyone who has symptoms or who had close contact with an infected person. Previously, the state lab had prioritized high-risk patients such as nursing home residents, health care workers or hospitalized individuals.

“For all intents and purposes, this news today, this game-changing news, will allow Maine to conduct testing in a much more widespread and expansive fashion,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said during his daily briefing. “This is a big step forward for all of us in the state as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 situation.”

Public health experts regard testing capacity is a key metric for states as they begin to ease stay-at-home orders and lift restrictions on businesses in hopes of reversing some of the severe economic damage caused by the pandemic. In Maine, restaurants in 12 of state’s 16 counties were allowed to resume dine-in service – with restrictions – on Monday, one week after retail stores in those dozen counties were permitted to reopen their doors.

However, other developments Monday underscored that the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus continues to spread in the state.

The Maine CDC reported 26 new confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 as well as the death of a woman in her 80s from Cumberland County, who was the 71st person in the state to die from the disease caused by the coronavirus. Additionally, the agency is responding to several new potential outbreaks.

Bristol Seafood’s Portland processing operation was shut down voluntarily Monday after initial tests revealed five cases among employees. Maine CDC staff also were also looking into reports of a possible outbreak at an affordable housing complex for senior citizens and disabled individuals in Portland.

“I know that our epidemiologists are looking into it to get the verified facts,” Shah said, noting that he had heard about the report of cases at the complex at 100 State St. less than an hour earlier.

“We get a lot of reports of things going on, and the process there is we look at our reports, look at our computer entries of all of the tests that come in to make sure that what has been reported to us corresponds with the confirmed laboratory tests,” Shah said. “After that, we get on the phone with the facility or operators to get a sense of what is going on and then make recommendations from that.”

Officials with HallKeen Management, which manages the complex, said there are about 215 residents at 100 State St. and that “fewer than 3 percent” – which translates to a maximum of six people – have either tested positive for the virus or been exposed. The breakdown of people who have been exposed or are infected was not immediately available, they said.

Additionally, the Maine CDC was working with nursing homes or long-term care facilities in Auburn, Biddeford and Bar Harbor after residents or staff tested positive.

ACTIVE CASES HOLD STEADY

The overall number of cases of COVID-19 continues to climb in Maine because of both expanding testing capacity in state labs as well as the further spread of the virus. As of Monday, the Maine CDC reported 1,713 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19.

Forty-two people were hospitalized with the disease as of Monday, up from 37 on Sunday. But with 16 individuals in intensive care units and 10 connected to ventilators, Maine’s hospitals are still well below their capacity for critically ill COVID-19 patients.

After accounting for the 71 deaths and the 1,053 people who have recovered from the disease, there were 589 active cases of COVID-19 in the state. That is the same number of active cases as Sunday. Even so, Maine CDC data show that the number of active cases in the state continues to trend upward, with the seven-day average for the week ending Monday standing at 547 compared to an average of 476 for the week ending May 11.

But the figures of total cases and active cases reflect only a portion of the cases in the state because not everyone with symptoms has been tested and some people are asymptomatic but can still transmit the disease to others.

Mills joined Shah during the daily briefing and called the new, broader testing protocol a breakthrough. She said the partnership with Westbrook-based veterinary diagnostics company Idexx will not only allow access to more testing for suspected cases but also “universal” testing of nursing homes and other congregate settings while also enabling random or “sentinel” testing.

“However, I continue to believe that more testing is necessary,” Mills said. “I know that Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Dr. Shah continue to work very hard to bring more options online that will further expand our testing capacity. It is so critical not only to the health and safety of our people but to Maine’s economy.”

WHAT IS ADEQUATE?

There is a robust debate nationwide about the level of testing needed before states should begin lifting restrictions aimed at slowing transmission of the virus. Some public health experts contend that Maine’s testing capacity is inadequate, even with this week’s significant expansion.

To date, there are more than 1.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and the nationwide death toll crested 90,000 Monday despite much of the country living under stay-at-home orders. The common flu, by comparison, killed anywhere from 12,000 to 62,000 U.S. residents annually over the past decade without such severe restrictions on the population or the economy, according to annual estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of late last week, the Maine CDC and private labs around the state were conducting more than 6,000 tests per week before the addition of the estimated 5,000 tests through the partnership with Idexx. That was more than double the roughly 3,000 tests that were being run weekly earlier this month.

But even with the Idexx tests, there are questions about whether Maine’s testing capacity is adequate to ensure that Maine – which has among the lowest per capita infection rates in the country – does not see a surge in cases as the Mills administration gradually reopens sectors of the economy.

Pressed Monday on testing capacity, both Shah and Mills said testing is just one measure the administration is using to gauge the status of the virus. Among the others are hospitalizations, hospital capacity, reports of COVID-like symptoms and the overall rate of positive versus negative coronavirus tests.

Maine’s case numbers will likely increase because of the expanded testing, Shah said, while noting that many of the recent increases have been tied to outbreaks or close relations of infected individuals.

“I think we’ve basically hit a plateau, and it is a low-level plateau,” Mills said. “I think we are in a different place than other states, a better place than other states right now. The challenge before us in the coming weeks … is unlike in other states, Maine is looking at an increased tourist population.”

RESTAURANTS REOPENING

The debate over Maine’s economic reopening has also been fierce as Mills has moved faster than all of her New England counterparts but not fast enough for some businesses or political critics.

On Monday, restaurants in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties were allowed to resume dine-in service as long as they commit to a lengthy checklist of health and safety protocols aimed at reducing the risk of transmission. Those include limiting the number of patrons at any one time, spacing out tables and enhanced hygiene practices.

Last Monday, retail stores were allowed to reopen in those same 12 counties – Aroostook, Piscataquis, Washington, Hancock, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford, Kennebec, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc – if they also followed health and safety guidelines.

Under the current rules, out-of-state visitors must quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Maine, which many fear could all but kill the economically critical summer tourism season. Mills said her administration is working with industry groups to come up with an alternative, but added, “We are not there yet.”

Retail stores and restaurants in Cumberland, York, Penobscot and Androscoggin counties are tentatively slated to be allowed to reopen on June 1.

Maine CDC epidemiologists have documented “community transmission” in those four counties, which account for more than 80 percent of the 1,713 confirmed or probable cases. All 26 new cases reported Monday appear to be among residents of Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties, based on the latest breakdown of cases in each county.

Staff Writer Rachel Ohm contributed to this report.

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