Signs at Crystal Joys on Middle Street in Portland advise patrons to stay home if they are feeling sick. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The number of active cases of COVID-19 in Maine continued to decline Thursday as recoveries outpaced the 30 new confirmed cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,667 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 to date, with Thursday’s 30 new cases representing a 1.1 percent increase, just shy of the average for the week. The number of deaths among individuals with COVID-19 also held steady at 100 for a third day, although the 29 hospitalizations and 12 patients in critical care units ticked up by two in both categories.

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.

Overall, the number of active cases of COVID-19 continued to trend downward – falling by nine to 505 compared to 558 active cases for the seven-day period ending Thursday – as state officials work to expand testing capacity, but also brace for an influx of tourists to Maine.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, also noted that the rate of genetics-based tests coming back positive fell slightly to 4.64 percent among all tests to date, and to 2.69 percent for tests run during the previous 24-hour period. Shah has said Maine should aim to reduce the overall positivity rate – one of numerous metrics tracked by epidemiologists – to 2 percent or lower as testing expands to show the prevalence of the virus is dropping.

“The trends are suggesting that we are heading in the right direction but that we also need to simultaneously keep up this momentum so we can drive both of those numbers as low as possible,” Shah said during his daily briefing.

While day-to-day figures fluctuate, Maine has seen the average daily number of new cases decline in recent weeks. For the one-week period ending on June 4, for example, Maine had averaged 37 new cases per day. On Thursday, that seven-day average had dropped to 32.

There were no new outbreak investigations reported on Thursday. Maine CDC continues to work with managers at Abbott Laboratories – a Scarborough manufacturer of testing equipment for COVID-19 – as well as Nichols Manufacturing to monitor outbreaks there. In addition, the number of positive cases affiliated with Procter & Gamble’s Tambrands facility in Auburn increased from seven to 13.

Shah said nursing homes and other congregate-care settings continue to be his agency’s “top area of concern” because of the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on their residents in Maine and nationally.

“This can change almost overnight, but it is the case we have not seen the large-scale outbreaks that we have seen earlier,” Shah said. “Although I will say that other states do continue to experience those large, congregate-care outbreaks.”

GOOD TRENDS BUT ALSO CONCERNS

The declines come at a time when the state is offering more testing and preparing to quadruple capacity at the Maine CDC lab in the next several weeks.

Also, the Maine Department of Labor reported that 5,400 Mainers filed for unemployment benefits last week – a sharp decline from the previous week but still an indication of the ongoing financial stress caused by the virus throughout Maine’s economy.

Yet there are also potential concerns on the horizon. State health officials are closely monitoring whether the continued reopening of the economy and recent large-scale protests will lead to a spike in new cases, for instance.

Asked about the recent racial justice protests and events in Maine – including large pro- and anti-Trump rallies tied to the president’s visit last week – Shah said it is still to early to tell. But Shah noted that anyone who attended a large gathering and subsequently feels ill can access testing under the state’s recent “standing order” without having to receive a testing order from a doctor.

Medically vulnerable individuals, workers who have regular and direct contact with the public, out-of-state visitors and other groups also qualify to use the standing order to receive testing at a sample-collection site.

“If we do see any sort of spike, tying it to a protest or a gathering might be incredibly difficult to do,” Shah said. “There might be a lot of other reasons that folks may have been exposed. They can be exposed just in their community, for example, irrespective of their attending any large gathering.”

TOURISM IMPACTS

The state also anticipates more out-of-state visitors coming in as summer approaches.

On Monday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that out-of-state visitors could forgo the 14-day quarantine requirement if they test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arriving in Maine or test negative through a test conducted in the state, although they will have to remain quarantined until results are returned.

While the Mills administration has said the testing requirement will allow more summer visitors to Maine, some businesses and industry leaders have said it is not enough of a reopening to keep many tourism-dependent businesses from failing during the pandemic.

In a letter sent to Mills on Wednesday, the vice president of a company with 11 hotel properties in Maine, Mark Walsh of Ocean Properties, accused the governor of ignoring research and suggestions from the industry and chambers of commerce.

“We explained in detail that having cumbersome, unproven and potentially illegal testing and health disclosure requirements is a disaster for Maine tourism, especially when you are trying to roll it out in the middle of June with 90 days left in the season,” Walsh wrote. “Our visitors are taking their business elsewhere and may never return.”

In an interview on Wednesday, prior to Walsh’s letter becoming public, Mills said that her administration has worked hard to be transparent about the justifications for decisions about restrictions on businesses and out-of-state visitors. Mills said her administration also worked closely with the hospitality sector and other businesses to find a way to allow out-of-state visitors to visit Maine without quarantining.

Maine has among the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, a fact that Mills attributed to those restrictions along with Mainers’ willingness to stay home and physically distance from each other. But Mills said she remains concerned about public health officials’ warnings of a potential late-summer or fall resurgence of the disease.

“Maine, unlike other states, we are looking a surge of tourists,” Mills said. “We are trying to balance the need to reopen the economy and allow the (tourism) economy flourish again with the need … to protect staff, visitors and the public from this dangerous and untreatable virus.”

During his briefing, Shah noted that Maine’s policies regarding out-of-state visitors are not just dependent on the trajectory of the disease in Maine. He and other public health watch trends in other states “extremely closely,” particularly among harder-hit Northeastern or New England states that account for the bulk of tourists to Maine.

“If they start trending back upward, that is going to be a signal for us to re-think things,” Shah said.

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