The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is eliminating periodic check-in calls to people with COVID-19 as the agency struggles to keep pace with surging case numbers and outbreaks across the state.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah announced Monday that agency staff will still speak with each person newly diagnosed with COVID-19 to provide them with guidance for their recovery and to begin the contact tracing process and investigation. But “that will be the one point of contact that Maine CDC has with individuals” as the agency redirects more staff resources to protecting vulnerable populations, he said.

The Maine CDC will continue to attempt to trace back the origins of infections as well as contact people who may have been exposed to the virus. But Shah said officials made the “difficult decision” to scale back follow-up calls in light of recent trends, including 17 new outbreak investigations since Friday and a 60 percent jump in daily positive test results in two weeks.

The agency reported 185 new cases on Monday and 236 on Sunday, which combined with the rising number of outbreaks is stretching resources, despite a 40 percent increase in contact tracers and investigators in recent weeks.

“We’ve added more training classes, we are hiring more folks and our training classes and our hiring are full … but sadly in Maine and across the country, the virus is moving faster and spreading faster than the ability of states to train and deploy new public health investigators,” Shah said. “We don’t make these changes lightly. We make them recognizing the impact that they may have.”

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said in an email that the change “means that Maine CDC staff will no longer check in routinely with cases to see if their symptoms or needs have changed.” He said the agency also may not have the most up-to-date data on how many people have recovered from the disease.

Although not a monumental shift, the change underscores the challenges faced by Maine CDC staff as COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths rise at alarming rates. Other states with much larger surges, such as North Dakota, have been forced to practically abandon the contact-tracing process.

COVID-19 hospitalizations topped 100 for the first time in Maine on Monday – rising from 94 to 103 from the previous 24-hour period – while the number of people in critical care beds ticked up from 42 to 45. By comparison, there were just 13 hospitalizations among people with COVID-19 in Maine and five individuals in the ICU four weeks ago on Oct. 26.

Hospitalizations have surged across Maine in recent weeks, particularly in central, western and eastern Maine. The 103 hospitalizations is more than 50 percent higher than the worst day during the spring surge of the virus. And while there were more than 100 available ICU beds statewide on Monday, there are concerns that the coronavirus cases are surging at a time when the seasonal flu typically results in a spike in hospitalizations in Maine.

All told, the Maine CDC reported 185 new cases Monday as well as one additional death, identified as a man in his 50s from Lincoln County. The seven-day average of daily new cases was 205.9, compared with 181.4 a week ago and 33.7 a month ago.

Shah noted that the number of positive test results reported to the Maine CDC lab has increased 60 percent — from 165 to 265 positives per day — during the past two weeks. Shah said the changes announced Monday were necessary to prioritize the agency’s focus on vulnerable individuals, such as those living in nursing homes or in the midst of an outbreak.

The number of outbreaks cropping up across the state – in nursing homes, office buildings, manufacturing plants as well as schools – is “placing significant challenges on Maine CDC resources,” Shah said.

On Monday, the Maine CDC was made aware of 10 cases at The Newton Center, a nursing home affiliated with Southern Maine Health Care in Sanford. Over the weekend, agency staff began investigations into 22 cases at the Gray Birch rehabilitation and long-term care facility run by MaineGeneral Health in Augusta and 10 cases at Winterberry Heights Assisted Living and Memory Care in Bangor.

Other outbreaks include Lewiston Fire Department (seven cases), the Huhtamaki mill in Waterville (eight cases), First Baptist Church in Cherryfield (five cases), Doolins Pub in Litchfield (four cases), Skowhegan Middle School (four cases) and Noble High School in North Berwick (three cases).

The Maine CDC is also changing the way it keeps track of individuals within their contact tracing system. Going forward, staff will prioritize contacting individuals who are the most recently exposed to the virus to direct them to begin their 14-day quarantine, thereby reducing their potential exposure to others in the community.

But he also urged people to take steps to protect themselves and others headed into the holidays, warning that because the virus is now widespread throughout Maine it would be a mistake for anyone to assume that they or family members are not at risk.

“If you don’t think that people in your community, loved ones, could be potentially affected, hospitalized or even sadly lose their lives to COVID-19, the answer is they can,” Shah said. “As we go into this critical week for dealing with COVID-19, a week that could determine whether our trajectory levels off or continues to climb at an ever-increasing rate, I am asking everyone to do their part and to do the right thing.”

With Thanksgiving on Thursday, if warnings to limit travel and avoid gatherings that don’t include immediate family members go unheeded, experts say a further escalation in COVID-19 cases could occur in the weeks after Thanksgiving. AAA for New England is projecting that Thanksgiving travel in New England states is expected to be down only about 9 percent.

Overall, there have been 10,544 COVID-19 cases and 177 deaths in Maine. Nationwide, more than 12 million people have been sickened and 257,000 people have died after contracting the virus, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

With two vaccines nearing FDA approval, Maine CDC officials say they’re planning a large-scale effort to vaccinate as many people as possible, as soon as possible, involving the National Guard, firefighters, paramedics and numerous other health care workers. The first limited supply of doses could arrive in mid- to late-December, with most of the supplies arriving in 2021.

Last week, Gov. Janet Mills imposed a 9 p.m. closing time for restaurants, movie theaters, tasting rooms and casinos that began Friday and lasts until Dec. 6. But Mills has, to date, resisted re-imposing a statewide lockdown or even regional stay-at-home orders because there is less federal support to help individuals and businesses weather the economic losses than during the spring.

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