A sign at the entrance to Big Babe’s Tavern in South Portland, which reopened briefly on June 28 but closed a day later out of caution, according to a Facebook post by the owners. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine reported 12 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and no additional deaths, continuing a streak of low numbers that make the state a rare bright spot compared to most of the United States, which is experiencing a surge in illnesses from the coronavirus.

Whether Maine is merely in a lull or a long-term positive trend remains to be seen, but the state has ramped up a testing, tracing and isolation strategy that if successful, will keep the virus in check.

Seventeen additional people have recovered from COVID-19, bringing active cases down from 390 on Tuesday to 385 on Wednesday.

The 12 cases follows eight new cases on Tuesday, which was one of only four days since the early days of the pandemic with single-digit case increases. The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 16.9 on Wednesday, compared to 39.6 on July 1. In late May, Maine was averaging about 50 cases per day.

Maine and New Hampshire are the only two states in the nation where case counts – on a 14-day average – are decreasing, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker. Much of the South and West have seen cases soar exponentially, especially in Florida, Arizona, Texas and California.

William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a conference call with reporters that one possible dynamic is that northern states, like Maine, are in a season where people spend more time outdoors, while in the South people tend to stay indoors during the hot summer months. Research has shown that indoors – especially crowded, poorly-ventilated spaces where people are not wearing masks – presents the highest risk of coronavirus transmission.

“While no contact is completely risk-free, the risk of transmission outdoors is much lower,” Hanage said. For that reason, Hanage said, while tourist season in Maine presents a risk, the greater risk is likely to come when the weather turns cold and people spend more time indoors.

Hanage said swift and early action taken by Maine this spring, continued strong containment measures, plus the fact that Maine is a low population-density state have helped it stay ahead of the virus.

“People will be introducing the virus to Maine from other states,” Hanage said. “The importance is not whether it happens, but how much it happens.”

The continued low case numbers come at a time when Maine is further expanding testing capacity. On Tuesday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was starting up 18 new “swab and send” testing sites this month throughout the state, where people without a doctor’s note can get results within 24 to 48 hours. Maine’s testing capacity is about five times as high as it was in early May, and is expected to further grow in the coming weeks to about 32,000 or more per week.

Jackie Farwell, Maine DHHS spokeswoman, said the state is working on strategies to promote the swab and send sites, including to raise awareness among summer tourists. Tourists from most states – except New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – are required to quarantine for two weeks after arriving in Maine or produce a negative result from a test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival. But tourists could also get tested upon arriving in Maine and quarantine while waiting for results.

Meanwhile, current hospitalizations dropped from 18 Tuesday to 12 Wednesday, continuing a mostly-steady decline since early July.

Gov. Janet Mills, in a tweet Tuesday, urged Mainers to “stay vigilant.”

“This deadly virus is still here, it is lurking in our communities, and when it takes hold, it can spread dangerously fast. The best thing Maine people can do for our health and for our economy is to stay vigilant. The worst thing we could do is let our guard down now,” Mills tweeted.

Overall, there have been 3,578 cases of COVID-19 in Maine, and 114 deaths.

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