Maine reported 43 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and one additional death, as state education officials said they plan to establish a website to report all cases in Maine public schools.

Thursday’s case count follows Wednesday’s 59 new cases, which was the largest one-day spike in new cases since late May.

York County remains a hot spot for new cases, accounting for 14. Androscoggin County had 13 cases while Cumberland County reported five.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during Thursday’s media briefing that the agency is still investigating the reasons for the recent increase in cases, but it can partly be linked to expanded testing. Maine has substantially expanded its testing capacity since this summer, surging by 38 percent in September. The state is now conducting 459 tests per 100,000 people, well above the national average of 250 per 100,000 people.

A woman checks her phone on Exchange Street in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Some of the increase we are seeing is a function of increased testing,” Shah said. “We are capturing cases that otherwise (previously) would have been left undiagnosed.”

But Shah said testing is not the only explanation for the recent jump, as Maine has had 488 cases over the past two weeks, 9 percent of the total since the pandemic began. In total, 5,431 Mainers have fallen ill with COVID-19 and 142 have died. The death reported on Thursday was a man in his 50s from York County.

The Maine CDC is currently responding to 17 outbreaks in York County, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic in Maine, accounting for 40 percent of all new cases over the past two weeks.

Shah said only 76 of the 488 cases in the past two weeks are associated with an active outbreak, although the Maine CDC is still investigating to determine if more cases are linked to outbreaks.

“What we are seeing is the continued geographic spread, particularly in areas of the state where there had been fewer cases,” Shah said. “They are associated with transmission occurring in every part of Maine, from person to person, family to family.”

For instance, some counties that had largely avoided COVID-19 have lately seen significant increases, such as Oxford County, which went from 97 cases on Sept. 16 to 152 cases on Sept. 30, an increase of 57 percent. Oxford County is the site of the ND Paper outbreak in Rumford, which has so far sickened 24.

Other, more rural counties have also seen upticks, Shah said, such as eight cases over the past two weeks in Lincoln County.

Meanwhile, numerous schools have reported cases of COVID-19, and a Maine Department of Education spokeswoman said the agency plans to report all school outbreak information in the state on one website.

“The (DOE) is currently working with (the Maine CDC) to build out a portal from which updated, confirmed case numbers can be accessed by (School Administrative Unit) or school,” said Kelli Deveaux, Maine DOE spokeswoman.

Sanford High School and Sanford Regional Technical Center has reported the largest outbreak in the state so far, with 18 cases at the 1,000-student school. The Maine CDC stepped in to provide on-site universal testing of all students and staff late last week.

Sanford Superintendent Matt Nelson told the Press Herald that he was not aware of any employees or students who refused a COVID-19 test, but anyone who fails to get a test will be required to quarantine for 14 days and not be permitted at school facilities.

The high school is currently in online-only learning, and no decision has been made on when students will return to school, Nelson said.

The Maine CDC is still determining how the outbreak at the high school occurred, but Nelson said students and staff followed the COVID-19 safety protocols, which include wearing masks and social distancing.

“Mask compliance was very good,” Nelson said. “Our students who attended in-person learning prior to the outbreak very much wanted to be back in school and did well following the safety protocols and procedures.”

Other 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.

At RSU 57 in York County, which includes Massabesic Middle School, where there are eight cases, Superintendent Larry Malone sent a letter to parents on Thursday that said students or staff members who were close contacts of COVID-19 cases could get tested in the middle school parking lot on Thursday or Saturday.

“We strongly recommend that every student and staff member identified as a close contact participate (or obtain testing through their own health care provider),” Malone wrote. “Achieving the highest possible rate of testing of all school community members will help make decisions about returning to in-classroom learning.”

Shah said the median age of a person who has fallen ill with COVID-19 in Maine has also decreased, going from a median age of 51 for the months of March, April and May to a median of 41 in June, July, August and September. Shah said the major reason for the age decrease is that when the pandemic began, there were many outbreaks in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, while now outbreaks in those facilities are less common.

Congregate care settings such as nursing homes, assisted living and group homes are receiving some additional help with infection control and prevention, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced on Thursday. Jeanne Lambrew, the department’s commissioner, said $1 million in federal funding would go to COVID-19 control and prevention programs at such facilities.

Also on Thursday, all four U.S. senators from Maine and New Hampshire called on President Trump to allow for more travel between the U.S. and Canadian borders.

A letter signed by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Angus King, I-Maine; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; urged Trump to lift restrictions.

“The protracted closure of the world’s longest international land border to all but essential travel has put immense strain on the communities that straddle the border,” the letter said. “Many people that reside along our shared border with Canada are part of remote, rural communities which rely on one another for essential supplies and services.”

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