The Maine Department of Education updated its COVID-19 advisory on Friday and gave York County a “green” designation, which will enable school districts in the county to resume athletics and other extracurricular activities.

The state also announced 41 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

York County had been placed in a “yellow” category since school started in September because it had been a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks, especially in the Sanford area, but cases have eased there over the past two weeks.

From Oct. 2-15, York County reported 85 COVID-19 cases, compared to 175 cases in the two-week period between Sept. 17-30.

Statewide, the seven-day daily average of new cases has remained fairly flat compared to two weeks ago, at 30.9 on Friday compared to 31.9 two weeks ago, but up from a month ago, when the seven-day average was 28.9, and considerably higher than two months ago, when the average was 14.1.

The increase in case numbers over two months reflects a broader national trend, which is much more intense and rapid in some states in the Midwest and mountain West. Public health officials, including in Maine, have expressed grave concern about the rise in cases and a potential “third wave” of infections that could strain the health care system and lead to increased deaths among the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

Oxford County was designated yellow for two weeks after an outbreak at ND Paper in Rumford, but returned to green on Oct. 9. While all counties in Maine are now green, Androscoggin, Somerset and Kennebec counties are being closely watched.

Under the green designation, schools can have in-person classes five days per week, but most schools in Maine have adopted a hybrid plan, with students attending school in person part of the week and remotely the rest of the week.

If a county is deemed yellow that means it has an “elevated risk of COVID-19 spread” while red indicates a county has a high risk of COVID-19 spread and the state would recommend remote learning. No county has been designated red since school returned this fall.

So far, the major impact of the color designations is on sports and extracurricular activities, which are typically canceled when a county goes yellow. In York County, the playing fields have been empty while high school sports have continued in a modified format for the rest of the state. Football converted to a 7-on-7 flag or touch games, and volleyball canceled indoor games and moved practices outside. The other high school sports, such as cross country and field hockey, resumed with new safety rules in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Old Orchard Beach students head back onto the field after a water break for their after-school workout last week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At RSU 23, which includes Old Orchard Beach High School, Superintendent John Suttie sent out a letter Friday preparing students for the return of sports and extracurricular activities.

“Over the next few days, our school athletic and band directors will meet to design a plan that will expand after-school opportunities for RSU 23 students,” Suttie wrote.

Biddeford schools also will resume athletics.

“We know there are only weeks left in the fall season, but extracurriculars are important to our young people,” Jeremy Ray, Biddeford’s superintendent, said in a news release.

More than half of the fall sports season has been completed, but high school teams can play games through Nov. 14, according to the Maine Principals’ Association. The association met with state officials on Friday to begin discussing the winter high school sports season.

In statewide developments, the death reported Friday was a woman in her 70s from York County.

When subtracting cases from previous days that were probable but later tested negative, the net number of new cases on Friday was 29.

Maine’s virus prevalence is the second-lowest in the country, at 2.3 cases per 100,000 people on a seven-day average, with Vermont the lowest at 1.5 cases per 100,000, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. But other New England states are seeing a significant increase.

In the past two weeks, the seven-day average of cases has surged by 112 percent in New Hampshire, doubled in Connecticut, and increased by 70 percent in Rhode Island and 25 percent in Massachusetts. Other states have been hit far worse in recent weeks, especially the Upper Midwest, mountain West and parts of the South.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday that as the virus prevalence increases in nearby states, the odds rise that Mainers visiting friends and family in other states will bring COVID-19 back to Maine.

“We are concerned less about tourism than individuals from Maine traveling, going to see friends and family in nearby places and inadvertently picking up the virus,” Shah said in a conference call with reporters. “We are not disconnected from the rest of the country.”

Thirteen states – including Kansas, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Montana – are seeing uncontrolled exponential growth of COVID-19, with case counts of 25 per 100,000 or more, according to the Harvard institute. The states with the worst levels of virus prevalence, South Dakota and North Dakota, have more than 72 cases per 100,000.

As testing capacity has surged in Maine, the percent positive reached a new low on Thursday – the latest day data was available – at 0.42 percent over a seven-day period. Over the past month, Maine’s positivity rate has hovered around 0.5 to 0.6 percent, while the U.S. positivity rate is about 5 percent. A low positivity rate means public health workers have a better chance of isolating people who test positive before they infect others, reducing transmission and curtailing outbreaks.

Hospitalizations remained low on Friday, with 11 people currently in the hospital, and five people in intensive care.

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