Residents and staff members were tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday at 100 State Street, an affordable housing complex in Portland for seniors and residents with disabilities. At least six cases had been reported at the complex. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine experienced the largest single-day spike in new coronavirus cases to date on Wednesday as expanded testing and several new outbreaks revealed 78 new infections.

State health officials said the increase in cases was expected and likely will continue as labs process more tests from doctors, nursing homes and other “congregate” settings across the state. There were no new deaths, which means the number of Maine residents who have died with COVID-19 held steady at 73.

The latest data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reveals that black or African Americans continue to account for a disproportionately large share of the positive cases in a predominantly white state. As a result, state health officials are stepping up outreach efforts in Maine’s immigrant communities and working to help safely isolate infected individuals in order to reduce transmission among large households or crowded living conditions.

“We’re sadly aware of the disparities,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC. “They trouble us … and we are working with community leaders in the immigrant rights community. But to be candid, we still have a ways to go there.”

The 78 new cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus brought the number of Maine’s total confirmed or probable cases to 1,819. After accounting for the 1,110 people who have recovered and the 73 deaths, the Maine CDC reported 636 active cases of the disease – an increase of 56 since Tuesday.

Because figures fluctuate significantly from day to day, public health officials and other observers also track case trends over weeks. Maine averaged 577 active cases per day over the seven-day period ending Wednesday, compared to an average of 498 active cases per day during the seven-day period that ended May 13.

Gov. Janet Mills and other state officials say they are tracking case trends as well as hospitalization rates, critical care capacity and flu-like symptoms as they decide whether to lift or tighten restrictions. While some businesses and politicians have accused Mills of moving too slowly to revive the economy, others fear a future surge in cases and deaths as summer arrives.

Shah noted that even though Wednesday saw the largest day-to-day increase, the jump was unsurprising because “with increased testing comes increased cases.” The Maine CDC lab recently more than tripled its testing capacity through a deal negotiated with the Westbrook-based veterinary diagnostics firm Idexx Laboratories.

Still, he said, “the increases underscore the need for us to keep our public health vigilance up.”

In what Shah called a positive sign, the overall percentage of tests that come back positive, also known as the “positivity rate,” has declined from roughly 6 percent to 5.4 percent since last week as testing expanded. The goal, Shah said, is to get Maine to around the 2 percent rate seen in South Korea, which has been held up as one model of controlling COVID-19 transmission.

Forty-three individuals with COVID-19 were hospitalized as of Wednesday, one less than Tuesday, but the number of patients being treated in intensive care units jumped from 19 to 24.

Overall, hospitalizations from COVID-19 have largely flattened in Maine in recent weeks as physical distancing measures helped to reduce case numbers and avoid a surge in demand for ICU beds and ventilators.

OUTBREAK UPDATES

The state also is tracking several outbreaks that have contributed to higher numbers, including at the Clover Health Care long-term care home in Auburn, where 22 residents or staff have tested positive in recent days.

Additionally, the Maine CDC reported two additional cases among workers at Bristol Seafood’s Portland processing facility, increasing the total to 15, and that the number of infected workers affiliated with a Cianbro construction project in Augusta increased to 22.

Meanwhile, a man incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham became the first inmate at one of the state’s prisons to test positive for COVID-19. As a result, more than 180 inmates and staff were tested Tuesday and another 500 people at the prison were to undergo testing Thursday and Friday.

The Maine Correctional Center had more than 450 inmates and over 200 employees as of Wednesday, and the infection raises concerns about the potential for outbreaks like those experienced in prisons and jails in other states.

“I do not believe that the individual brought the virus in – it had been too long,” said Maine Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty. “We are tracking down now, through the contact tracing methodology and working with the Maine CDC, to determine just what the possibilities are of what brought the virus in.”

The Maine CDC also is monitoring active outbreaks at Blue Star Homecare in Biddeford, Durgin Pines in Kittery and an affordable housing complex at 100 State Street in Portland. Shah reported no “substantial” changes at other outbreaks, such as the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough and Tall Pines in Belfast, both of which have lost a dozen or more residents to COVID-19 in recent weeks.

ALARMING RACIAL DISPARITY

States around the country have reported a racial disparity among COVID-19 infections and deaths, and Maine is no exception. The latest statistics suggest that disparity could be growing.

According to race and ethnicity data compiled by the Maine CDC, residents who identify themselves as black or African American account for 13 percent — or 235 individuals – of Maine’s 1,819 cases even though those racial groups represent just 1.6 percent of the state’s population. The percentage grows to 16 percent if the 362 individuals who did not provide their race or ethnicity are deducted from the total.

Two weeks ago, black or African American residents accounted for roughly 6 percent of COVID-19 cases in Maine – still disproportionately high but much lower than the 13 percent as of Wednesday.

Shah did not provide specific reasons when asked about the disparity on Wednesday. But one factor is likely to be outbreaks at workplaces with large numbers of immigrants from African counties. The Tyson Foods plant in Portland, for instance, reported 51 cases in recent weeks.

Shah pointed out that in Maine and other states, people at lower socioeconomic rungs often have less access to health care, live in more densely packed settings and work in jobs “that put them in the way of the virus and unfortunately don’t allow them the ability to work at home.”

To address the issue, staffers at the Maine CDC have been talking with leaders of immigrant communities in Portland and Lewiston. The agency is also working with hospitals and clinics to provide additional testing opportunities in immigrant communities while ensuring the Maine CDC has “culturally competent, culturally aware” contact tracers able to communicate with immigrants who are infected or were potentially exposed.

Lastly, Maine CDC is exploring using hotels and other “secure, safe isolation space” in Portland and Lewiston to allow infected individuals to remove themselves from the household and avoid further transmission.

“What we’ve seen is that outbreaks like this … reveal the cracks in our health care system and in our society overall that were there,” Shah said.

TESTS INCREASE AS MAINE REOPENS

The Maine CDC has more than tripled testing capacity – to roughly 7,000 tests per week – at the state lab in Augusta through its partnership with Idexx . At the same time, many private labs and hospitals also are increasing their testing capacity.

Still, questions remain about the level of testing needed in Maine – and elsewhere — in order to help prevent a surge in cases as the state relaxes restrictions on businesses and individuals.

On Tuesday, the Mills administration announced that private campgrounds and RV parks could reopen to Maine residents on Friday – 10 days earlier than originally planned – in order to take advantage of the extended Memorial Day weekend. Campgrounds at Maine state parks are slated to remain closed until June 1.

On Wednesday, the administration announced updated guidelines for businesses scheduled to open June 1, including for overnight summer camps and community sports.

But the governor delayed the full reopening of fitness centers, gyms and nail salons beyond June 1, which is when retail and restaurants stores throughout the state are expected to resume in-store service on a limited basis and hotels can begin hosting nonessential guests.

Stores and restaurants in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties were allowed to reopen this month with restrictions intended to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19. Under the current timeline, those businesses in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties will be allowed to reopen on June 1.

Shah and other Mills administration officials said the decision to delay the full reopening of fitness centers and gyms – which are allowed to offer small, outdoor classes as well as one-on-one training sessions indoors – was prompted by research showing an outbreak in South Korea tied to the facilities. Similarly, California is tracking a potential spike in cases tied to nail salons.

Meanwhile, the Maine CDC continues to monitor outbreaks at numerous long-term care facilities and nursing homes as well as workplaces and other “congregate” settings.

The Maine CDC collaborated with Mercy Hospital in Portland to offer testing Wednesday to residents of 100 State Street in Portland, an affordable housing complex that caters to older Mainers and individuals with disabilities. Shah said there were at least six COVID-19 cases at the complex and that, given the vulnerability of the resident population, Maine CDC was recommending all residents and staff be tested.

Courtney Mathiowitz, director of marketing for HallKeen Management, which operates the apartment complex, said residents had been informed of the testing availability and “we expect a good, coordinated turnout.”

“We continue to clean and disinfect our community; common areas are closed; we have signage in and on the community regarding protocols and CDC recommendations; all of our residents are following procedures and wearing masks when they are out of their apartments,” Mathiowitz said in a statement to the Press Herald. “We’re confident in the way our company/property has handled the situation and we will continue to support our residents in any way we can.”

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