A masked woman walks past the Starbucks on Congress Street with a sign in its window about reopening on June 4. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Health officials reported 41 new coronavirus cases and one additional death Wednesday, although the state’s top epidemiologist said a 20 percent bump in testing and a drop in the positive result rate suggest Maine is trending in the right direction.

While new case numbers fluctuate from day to day, with spikes linked to specific outbreaks, the 41 new cases falls within the state’s seven-day and 14-day averages of 40 and 43 cases, respectively. Those figures, combined with a decline in active cases during the past week, suggest a flattening of new infections in the state.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the rate of positive test results among all tests to date has fallen below 5 percent. That is roughly half the national rate and below the rates of four of the other five New England states, with Vermont reporting a positivity rate of 3 percent.

But Shah noted that just 3.5 percent of the more than 9,000 genetic-based tests conducted during the past week have come back positive. That is compared to a positivity rate of 4.1 percent for the previous week when there were 20 percent fewer tests conducted.

“We’ve got more work ahead of us,” Shah said during his daily briefing. “But that 0.6 percentage drop just in the past week tells me, tells our team that we are headed in the right direction when it comes to testing, the volume of testing and the fact that we are catching as many of the potential positives as we can.”

Maine is the only state in the country that reports the rates of positive and negative test results weekly rather than daily. Public health experts warn that could hamper the state CDC’s ability to quickly detect trends that could necessitate policy changes, especially as more businesses reopen and more tourists begin to show up in Maine.

Even so, the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus continues to spread and take lives in Maine and nationally, where it has been linked to more than 106,000 deaths as of Wednesday.

The death of a Knox County man in his 70s – a first for the midcoast county – increased the total death toll among patients with COVID-19 to 95. On Tuesday, the Maine CDC reported five additional deaths, with four of those occurring in Cumberland County.

Shah also reported another potential outbreak at a workplace. Thirteen workers at Eldredge Lumber & Hardware in York County have tested positive, although Maine CDC is still working to determine whether those cases are workplace-connected or if the employees contracted the virus independently in the broader community.

York County is one of four counties – along with Cumberland, Androscoggin and Penobscot – where state epidemiologists have documented community transmission of the virus.

“Our investigation, including recommending universal testing, is underway,” Shah said of the potential outbreak at Eldredge.

To date, Maine CDC has documented 2,418 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19. While Maine still has among the lowest infection rates in the country, the per capita rates in Cumberland and Androscoggin counties have trended upward in recent weeks.

Overall, however, the number of active cases statewide has been trending downward in recent days.

After accounting for the 95 deaths and the 1,699 people who have recovered – an increase of 53 since Tuesday – the Maine CDC was reporting 624 active cases of COVID-19 in the state. That is a decrease of 13 from Tuesday’s figure. Looking back over a longer period, Maine averaged 670 active cases of the disease for the seven-day period that ended Wednesday versus an average of 703 for the seven-day period ending on May 28.

The number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 stood at 44 on Wednesday – a decrease of four since Tuesday – while the number of patients in critical care beds also declined by two to 14. Ten of those individuals are connected to ventilators.

Hospitalization rates and death trends are key metrics for tracking the progress of the virus and efforts to contain transmission. Intensive care beds and ventilators are critical tools for treating hospitalized patients, and epidemiologists closely monitor the demand for these resources as they study the spread of the disease.

On Monday, retail stores throughout Maine were allowed to reopen their buildings to customers – with enhanced health and safety precautions – as part of Gov. Janet Mills’ phased plan. Restaurants in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties have been able to resume dine-in service, while establishments in all counties can offer outdoor, takeout and curbside service.

Yet concerns are growing in Maine and around the country about how transmission rates could be affected by the large racial justice protests sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minneapolis. The novel coronavirus has an incubation period of up to two weeks, and many positive people are infectious even when they are asymptomatic.

The largest gatherings in Maine – such as those in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor – have occurred in Maine counties where community transmission is happening. In addition, President Trump’s planned Friday visit to a medical swab manufacturing facility in Guilford is expected to draw sizable numbers of the president’s opponents and supporters to the rural, Piscataquis County town.

Asked again Wednesday about those risks, Shah said, “it is difficult to speculate about what we may see in 10 days.” Shah said he was encouraged by seeing many people in news broadcasts who were wearing cloth face coverings or were attempting to maintain some space between one another, when possible.

“I truly ask, in the spirit of community, if you are going to be out in a mass gathering, please do everything you can to take care of not just your own health but the health of others,” Shah said. “And know that by putting on a face covering, you are doing both at the same time.”

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