The Department of Health and Human services set up a mobile testing site at Sanford High School to test all students, staff and faculty. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Universal testing at Sanford High School and Sanford Regional Technical Center has revealed 18 cases of COVID-19 among the students and staff at the 1,000-student school, state officials said Tuesday.

It’s the first school in the state where the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped in to provide universal testing. Thirteen cases previously had been reported at the school.

Statewide, the Maine CDC reported 37 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and one additional death. The death was a woman in her 80s from York County.

York County continues to be a hot spot for COVID-19 in Maine, with numerous outbreaks, including a growing number in Sanford. On Tuesday, the Maine CDC reported two more outbreaks, at Little Lambs Learning Center in Springvale, with 11 cases, and the Pinnacle Health and Rehabilitation nursing home in Sanford, with nine cases.

The state also announced Tuesday that it is receiving a shipment of 26,000 rapid antigen tests made by Abbott Laboratories in Maine. The new rapid tests will be primarily used in schools. The details of a testing program are still under discussion.

Between a site set up at Sanford High School last week and tests done elsewhere, more than 1,500 tests have been conducted on students and staff at the high school and technical center, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.

“Roughly 900 samples were collected and sent to the Maine CDC lab for testing, with three coming back positive,” Shah said of the tests done at the high school on Thursday and Friday.

At the drive-through testing site set up at Sanford High School, a technician places a nasal swab into a vial after receiving it back from a student on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said extra lab staff were sent to the high school over the weekend to expedite testing results.

“Our ongoing investigation has yet to determine whether the high school was the source of transmission,” Long said.

New outbreaks and individual COVID-19 cases have been reported in greater numbers over the past week. Recent schools that have reported cases include Freeport middle and high schools, Massabesic Middle School, Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, Yarmouth schools, Maranacook Community Middle School in Kennebec County and others.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that the incidence of COVID-19 in school-age children began rising in early September as many youths returned to their classrooms. Children of all ages now make up 10 percent of all U.S cases, up from 2 percent in April, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported Tuesday.

The coronavirus predominantly had affected the elderly in the spring and summer, and authorities say school reopenings and the resumption of sports, playdates and other activities appears to be driving the demographic shift. However, most infected children have mild cases; hospitalizations and death rates are much lower than in adults.

Shah said the Abbott tests are a welcome tool to help schools provide some form of in-person learning while trying to prevent and control cases of COVID-19.

Shah said the U.S. CDC has directed that, for the Abbott tests, the “principal use be in cases in and among schools.”

“The test is flexible, can be used in different settings,” Shah said. “We are shoring up our planning to rapidly deploy them.”

The Illinois-based company, which has a lab and manufacturing plant in Scarborough and a manufacturing plant in Westbrook, landed a $750 million contract with the federal government in August to produce 150 million tests nationwide. The tests cost $5 each and can produce results from a less-invasive nasal swab within 15 minutes.

The initial 26,000-test shipment could arrive in Maine as soon as next week, Shah said. More shipments to Maine and other states are expected in the coming months.

The Abbott tests are antigen tests, which look for the presence of the virus’ protein, while most of the tests in current use are molecular and detect the virus’ genetic material. The antigen tests are generally less reliable than molecular tests, public health experts have said, but the advantage is that the antigen tests can be produced in great numbers, are less expensive and generate quick results.

Shah said it’s still unclear exactly how the tests will be used for schools but, for now, the “performance of the tests is best when done among symptomatic individuals.”

“There is not great data on how accurate the tests are on people who do not have symptoms,” Shah said.

Shah said while no decisions have been made on schools as the year continues, the Maine CDC is looking at the latest science on how vulnerable children are to COVID-19. It’s also studying whether children, even if they do not get sick or have a mild case, are likely to transmit the disease to more vulnerable adults.

He said the science is still emerging, but there are some encouraging signs that children younger than 12 are not likely to fall ill,  although it’s unclear whether younger children are vectors of the disease.

“We are thinking about what the latest data tells us about schools overall,” Shah said. “Overall, the number of outbreaks detected in schools nationwide where transmission occurred in the school itself has been thankfully low.”

Christopher Perry, the parent of a Freeport High School student and a Yarmouth High School student, said he’s worried the measures schools are taking will not be enough to prevent significant outbreaks. He said schools should be flexible and allow students to move between in-person and all-remote learning, although he realizes that’s a logistical challenge.

“These (COVID-19 outbreaks) seem to be building,” Perry said.

Nineteen of Tuesday’s new cases occurred in York County, and eight were in Cumberland County, the Maine CDC said.

Since the pandemic began in March, there have been 5,337 cases and 141 deaths. Fifteen more people were listed as recovered from COVID-19 on Tuesday, and recoveries now total 4,629. There are currently 567 active cases of COVID-19.

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