Gov. Janet Mills’ administration has distributed $9 million to 96 Maine cities and towns to support local public health education measures, hoping municipalities will help the state avoid spikes in cases of COVID-19 that other states are starting to see.

“Towns and cities across Maine are on the front lines of responding to COVID-19 and are well-positioned to protect their residents and visitors alike,” Mills said Friday. “Maine continues to have relatively low case counts, which is a product of our collective efforts, but as we reopen the vast majority of our economy, as more people interact, and as more visitors arrive from out of state, the likelihood of the virus spreading also increases.”

Mills said the disturbing spikes in cases in states that opened their economies quickly, such as Texas and Florida, should serve as a “cautionary tale.”

State officials reported an additional 32 coronavirus cases Friday, but no new deaths – the eighth time in the last nine days that has happened.

Overall, Maine has tracked 3,102 confirmed or probable cases since mid-March, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 2,542 people have recovered and 103 people have died, leaving 457 active cases, two more than Thursday. Over the last 10 days, the daily average has been 28 cases, down slightly from an average of 30 over the previous 10 days. Both the number of new cases and the number of hospitalizations have been trending downward since peaking in late May. A total of 343 people have been hospitalized at some point for COVID-19, but there were just 25 people in the hospital Friday, 10 of them in critical care and seven using a ventilator.

In the last 20 days, there have been four deaths related to COVID-19. During the previous 20-day period, there were 29. Maine also has not seen a new outbreak at a congregate living facility, where many cases and deaths have occurred, in some time.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said it’s likely there is a straight line connecting fewer deaths and fewer outbreaks in nursing homes, in part because officials have gotten better at distributing personal protective equipment and have been testing more proactively.

A woman looks out a window at Reny’s in Wells. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As an example, Shah said Houlton Regional Hospital recently stepped up to offer widespread testing after several people associated with the town’s ambulance service tested positive. The hospital set up a mobile testing site in its parking lot and collected 301 samples. Only one came back positive.

“We commend them for their quick action,” he said. “This episode is a reminder that the virus can travel wherever people can travel.”

Shah also said Friday that Maine continues to make great strides in testing and in bringing down the overall positivity rate, a measure of how robust and widespread testing is. On Thursday, he said, the state processed 2,225 tests, 39 of which were positive, which equates to a 1.75 percent positivity rate. The seven-day average is 1.8 percent and the overall rate, which includes every test conducted to date, has dipped below 4 percent for the first time.

“We are headed in the right direction, but we have to keep both of our feet on the gas,” Shah said.

Maine’s numbers are trending in the right direction and by next week, most Maine businesses will reopen, albeit with restrictions and safety measures in place.

But other states are going in the opposite direction. The number of confirmed new coronavirus cases per day in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 40,000 Friday – the previous high was 36,400 set on April 24. The surge has led some governors to backtrack or at least pause the reopening of their states.

Some of the increase can be tied to expanded testing, but experts say there is evidence that the virus is making a comeback, especially in southern and western states.

To date, there have been more than 124,000 deaths in the U.S. and more than 2.4 million confirmed infections, although officials said the number of probable cases is likely far greater. The U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population but has had almost 25 percent of all COVID-19 related deaths.

Mills said Maine can learn from other states and said the state has several measures in place “to protect us against such a surge … if people follow guidelines.”

She mentioned specifically a requirement that all out-of-state visitors either quarantine for 14 days or get a negative test within 72 hours of arrival. Visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont are exempt.

“I see no reason why a person wouldn’t want to get a test,” the governor said. “What’s the harm?”

As more and more visitors come into the state, Mills said, it will become vital for local officials to act as eyes and ears and assist people with following guidelines. That’s the goal behind the distribution of the $9 million, which comes from Maine’s share of the federal CARES Act.

Municipalities were awarded money based on applications, and the grants varied in size.

The town of Kittery will get $248,906 for a campaign to promote and support public health measures among residents, businesses and visitors, including providing additional contact-free services in public spaces such as parks, marinas and municipal buildings.

The city of Bangor was awarded $157,957 to promote its “Mask Up for Me” campaign and other public health and business support efforts, including promoting outdoor dining at restaurants.

And the town of Bar Harbor was awarded $127,000 for a campaign to support public health best practices including enhanced signage, public kiosks with free facial coverings and sanitizer for visitor use, and a “Parklet Program” to support efforts to bring indoor businesses outside.

The state has an additional $4 million in funding for this program and is expected to reopen calls for applications soon.

Mills closed Friday’s news conference by encouraging Mainers to “enjoy this beautiful state,” this weekend.

 

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