Men walk on the sidewalk Tuesday between Custom House Wharf and Portland Pier. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

State health officials reported 21 new cases of COVID-19 in Maine on Thursday, but the number of deaths among individuals with the virus held steady for a second day.

At the same time, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention continues to track several outbreaks among workers in the state’s wild blueberry industry and is monitoring a potential cluster of cases among clubs in the Biddeford area.

“We are aware that there was a golf tournament as well as some other outdoor activities that may have involved individuals who are positive,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC. “Right now, we have not received any confirmed cases and thus have not opened an outbreak investigation.”

To date, there have been 4,089 confirmed or probable cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus in Maine, according to the latest figures from the Maine CDC. There have also been 126 deaths in Maine among individuals with COVID-19.

After accounting for the 126 deaths and 3,592 individuals who have recovered, Maine CDC was reporting 371 active cases of the disease, which is an increase of six since Wednesday.

Eleven people were hospitalized with COVID-19, with five of those being treated in critical care units and three connected to ventilators.

The 21 additional cases reported Thursday is higher than the seven-day average of 15 new cases daily and slightly above the rolling average of 18 cases for the week ending on Aug. 6. New cases ranged from a low of six to a high of 26 during the past two weeks, and daily totals can be adjusted from day to day as “probable” cases are reclassified as negative after subsequent testing.

During a briefing with reporters Thursday, Shah noted that the state achieved several milestones during the previous 24 hours, including a one-day high of 3,175 molecular tests run by either the Maine CDC or other laboratories in the state.

Shah also reported that just 0.63 percent of the test results from the previous day came back positive. That helped Maine achieve a record-low weekly average of 0.65 percent positive results, compared to a national positivity rate of 8 percent.

Roughly one-third of the 3,175 tests were run by the Maine CDC lab in Augusta, with the remainder conducted by private or hospital labs. That is still well shy of the anticipated capacity at the state lab once an expansion is complete under a partnership with Westbrook-based IDEXX Laboratories.

When announced by Gov. Janet Mills in June, the mobile lab was expected to be operational in July. But equipping, supplying and staffing the new facility – which is expected to more than quadruple the Maine CDC lab’s capacity – has taken longer than anticipated.

Shah didn’t provide specifics Thursday but said the mobile lab should be operational “very, very soon.” The state lab currently has a test turn-around time of 24 to 48 hours with no backlog.

“The equipment in the mobile lab has been installed, the reagents have been acquired and we are in the final stages of training the staff,” Shah said. “So as we go into the fall and as we get ready for flu season, we’ll be able to expand testing not just for COVID-19 but for other respiratory viruses.”

The expanded lab capacity could allow Maine CDC to work with nursing homes to conduct periodic, universal testing of all staff. Some, but not all, long-term care facilities in Maine are already testing staff as a way to detect the virus and isolate individuals before they can spread it to vulnerable residents.

“That’s been, I think, among the many reasons why the number of new nursing home outbreaks today on a weekly basis is not what it was in April,” Shah said of the voluntary universal testing at some nursing homes.

Shah said Maine CDC is also discussing expanding testing access to other Mainers beyond those who can automatically qualify without a doctor’s order. The current standing order from the Mills administration allows out-of-state visitors to be tested at any of 18 “swab-and-send” sites as well as Mainers who believe they were potentially exposed, whether from an infected individual or by participating in larger gatherings where physical distancing was not possible.

Maine continues to record some of the lowest infection rates in the country with 303 cases for every 100,000 residents, according to COVID-19 tracking by The New York Times. Only Hawaii and Vermont had lower per capita infection rates as of Wednesday.

Similarly, Maine had the nation’s lowest rate of new infections during the previous seven-day period, with 0.8 infections for every 100,000 residents, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The states with the highest rates, Georgia and Florida, were both seeing more than 30 new infections per 100,000 residents.

However, Maine CDC continues to monitor and detect new outbreaks, which are identified as three cases connected to a certain location or workplace that are epidemiologically linked.

One area of concern is among workers at blueberry farms or processing facilities. Shah reported Thursday that Hancock Foods had 12 cases, up from 10 last week, while Merrill Farms in Hancock had 13 cases, up from nine. The number of cases at Wyman’s, one of the state’s largest blueberry producers, also ticked up to five.

But the state has closed outbreak investigations at Corsetti’s pizza and sandwich shop in Westbrook, the skilled nursing facility Orono Commons and Houlton Ambulance Service in Aroostook County. Outbreak investigations are considered closed when there are no new cases for 28 days after the most recent case of symptom onset.

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