A man reads a book in Lobsterman Park in Portland on Aug. 28. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine recorded 24 new coronavirus cases Tuesday as state officials continued to investigate several outbreaks linked to a wedding in Millinocket, as well as new potential clusters on several college campuses.

The number of deaths among individuals with COVID-19 held steady for a sixth straight day, however, and Maine continues to have among the lowest coronavirus infection and death rates in the country.

Officials with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of cases linked to the Aug. 7 wedding and reception in Millinocket had ticked up to a total of 134 confirmed or probable infections.

Roughly half of the 134 cases are among wedding attendees or people who contracted the virus secondarily from them or others. But Maine CDC officials are investigating 66 related  cases at the York County Jail – located 200 miles from Millinocket – as well as a dozen cases at the Maplecrest Rehabilitation Center in Madison.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said the preliminary investigation suggests the jail outbreak may be traced to a staff member who attended the wedding.

“The investigation is continuing and we may discover that, around the same time, another staff member was also feeling sick who had been at a completely different event,” Shah said. “I don’t want to foreclose those other possibilities. We are always keeping our eyes open to them, making sure we try not to develop tunnel vision.”

Shah also said the agency is looking into whether a lack of face coverings being worn inside the jail contributed to the spread there.

SCHOOL ISSUES

Much of the focus in Maine and across the nation has been on whether students should be returning to classrooms – whether in K-12 schools or on college campuses – as well as the safety of sports and other extracurricular activities.

On Tuesday, state health and education officials recommended delaying high school sports programs this fall. The recommendation was seen as a rebuke of a vote last week by the board of the Maine Principals’ Association to allow all sports this fall.

“Our response was to let them know that there were places where there was great alignment and places where they are quite misaligned with the guidelines that Maine CDC and DHHS have put together,” Pender Makin, commissioner of the Department of Education, said during a briefing with reporters.

Meanwhile, Maine CDC has launched separate investigations into clusters of cases among students at the University of New England and Maine Maritime Academy. Each school reported three additional COVID-19 cases among students.

The University of Maine System reported 13 cases among students or staff at the various campuses. Six of those cases – including two new cases in Orono – were identified through the more than 6,600 “asymptomatic arrival screening” tests conducted to date on the various campuses.

RATES STILL LOW

The 24 additional cases of COVID-19 is just below the average of 27 new cases for the previous week, according to the Maine CDC. The seven-day rolling average of new cases has hovered in the low 20s for roughly two weeks after dipping to 14 cases on Aug. 11.

To date, Maine CDC has tracked 4,548 cases since mid-March. Nearly 87 percent of those have already recovered from the disease, although as Shah noted Tuesday “recovery” does not mean that individuals are not suffering from COVID-related health problems.

After accounting for the 3,945 recoveries and the 132 deaths, Maine CDC was reporting 471 active cases of the disease Tuesday, the same number as Monday.

Maine continues to have among the lowest infection rates in the country.

Maine’s seven-day rolling average of 1.9 new cases per 100,000 residents ranked third-lowest in the nation Tuesday, behind Vermont (1.4 new cases for every 100,000 residents) and New Hampshire (1.6 cases), according to tracking by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Brown School of Public Health. By comparison, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota were averaging more than 30 new infections per 100,000 residents during the previous week.

YORK COUNTY OUTBREAKS

While Maine CDC staff are still looking into how the virus entered the York County Jail and spread to 66 people, Shah said, investigators have zeroed in on the fact that “face-covering wearing may not have been what we wanted it to be.”

York County Sheriff William King told the Press Herald last week that the jail did not require guards and inmates to wear masks before this outbreak and it was not “a regular occurrence.” King did not respond to a request of updated information about the jail outbreak Tuesday.

Shah said his agency “has strongly, strong recommended” face coverings in jails and other settings where individuals come into close contact with one another. For jails, they also recommend staggered staffing schedules and “cohorting” of inmates to reduce the risk of transmission.

“Ultimately, it is the facility’s responsibility to make sure that they are putting them into place,” Shah said.

The number of cases at Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford also remained at five on Tuesday. The church held in-person services Sunday and the pastor, Rev. Todd Bell, is believed to have officiated at the Aug. 7 wedding in Millinocket.

Shah said that investigation was ongoing but that epidemiologists have not yet definitively linked the Millinocket wedding to the cases at Calvary Baptist Church. He urged church members to work with Maine CDC staff if they are contacted during the tracing process.

“We have some hypotheses, but as with any scientific endeavor, we’ve got to have more than reports and unconfirmed notions,” Shah said. “We have to make sure we are getting it from primary, verified sources.”

NEW NURSING HOME RULES

Maine DHHS also released new guidance on Tuesday for nursing homes in meeting new federal requirements that they regularly test staff for COVID-19. Numerous nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Maine already proactively test staff but the new federal rules will require all facilities to begin universal testing.

DHHS is requiring facilities to file plans with the department by Sept. 15 for implementing the testing requirement for staff. The federal government is providing $10 million as well as testing equipment to facilities in Maine.

Facilities can send those tests to Maine CDC’s lab for analysis or to private labs. Under the guidance released Tuesday, smaller facilities can also send staff to one of the more than two dozen “swab-and-send” testing facilities located around the state that are run by groups working with the CDC.

“Today’s guidance along with the new federal support will add to our progress in limiting the impact of COVID-19 on Maine’s nursing facilities,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement. “It will also bring us one step closer to allowing family and friends to visit their loved ones in nursing facilities, which has been limited by the threat of COVID-19.”

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