March 14, 2020: A couple walks past the closed State Theatre in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

For weeks the threat had been approaching, a violent storm looming on the horizon, one that had led Chinese authorities to seal off a swath of their country and overwhelmed northern Italy’s hospitals and morgues and forced the army to deploy to process the dead. In Boston, store shelves were being picked clean of cleaning supplies, frozen foods, bottled water and even masks, despite public health experts advising – wrongly – that people who weren’t sick needn’t wear them.

Then, on Thursday, March 12, just days after the state lab obtained the ability to test for the virus, came confirmation that COVID-19 was here. An Army reservist returning from northern Italy who had arrived at Central Maine Medical Center with symptoms of the disease tested positive. Schools across southern Maine canceled the next day’s classes. Within days the disease had been detected in a worker at a Portland homeless shelter, residents of a Falmouth nursing home and a middle school student in Cape Elizabeth – confirmation it was potentially everywhere.

Life had ceased to be normal, and Mainers tried to wrap their heads around the idea that we might be locked down for weeks.

A year later Mainers are still limping through what we hope may be the final stages of pandemic life. Four-fifths of us remain entirely unvaccinated. More than a thousand of us are still coming down with COVID-19 each week. On any given day more Mainers struggle with the disease in our hospitals’ intensive care units than at almost any time during last spring’s surge. Our kids wear masks in class, if they can go to school at all. Our loved ones in nursing homes have been all but sealed off from the outside world for longer than their younger grandchildren can remember.

It’s clear we dodged the worst. More than 700 of our fellow Mainers are dead, but our per capita death rate is one of the lowest in the United States, despite having the oldest population. On Thursday, The New York Times tracker ranked us as the 35th worst state in disease prevalence, but we spent much of the pandemic at 48th or 49th, vying with Vermont and Hawaii to be the safest corner of the country. At the pandemic’s worst moments in late December and early January, our hospitals avoided being overwhelmed, and plans to open field hospitals at arenas in Portland and Bangor never had to be activated.

But the effects of the yearlong crisis have been profound, a gigantic stress test on all aspects of our society and economy that experts say will leave a lasting mark and a variety of challenges as we prepare for life in the “new normal,” a world with both COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines in it.

May 3, 2020: Gary Sredzienski plays the accordion for seniors in a courtyard at Pinnacle Health & Rehab of North Berwick. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

ELDERLY BORE THE BRUNT

The brunt of the pandemic was borne by the elderly and the people who care for them. Of the 723 Mainers killed by the disease as of Friday, 426 – or 59 percent – were 80 and older. More than 85 percent of the dead were 70 and older. Only one Mainer under 30 has died from COVID-19 and, thankfully, not a single child.

Because the disease can spread rapidly in places where lots of people live or work in close quarters, the majority of these deaths are associated with nursing home and assisted living facility outbreaks: 326 of them as of Friday. The actual figure is probably significantly higher, as there must be at least three confirmed cases in a cluster for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to declare an outbreak and release data on the number of people affected.

This is why Gov. Janet Mills put residents and staff at these facilities at the top of the vaccination list and anyone who wished to be vaccinated has probably received both shots and is close to full immunity by now, allowing administrators to began loosening restrictions on visitors and other contacts with the outside world.

“We’re all feeling a little lighter as residents are able to talk to each other again and eat together and see their family,” says Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, a nonprofit that advocates for the elderly. “Many communities in Maine also came together to make sure the people who were older and sheltering in place got access to the things they needed.”

But the stress on nursing home and elderly home care staff has been tremendous. The work is demanding, but wages are low, partly because they are tempered by low reimbursement rates from MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program, which insures a large share of Maine long-term-care residents. For this reason there were staffing shortages before the pandemic struck and these only got worse when many employees dropped out because they lacked child care, were afraid of being exposed to the disease, or couldn’t bear to see another client suffer or die as the virus triggered outbreaks in 126 facilities across the state.

 

“We were in a crisis before COVID-19 hit, but now you have staff who need to leave because they can’t handle the mental health challenges of massive death and stress in the people they cared about and cared for,” Maurer adds. The problem extends to home care workers who help housebound elders but were inexplicably left out of the priority vaccination lists.

Maurer testified to legislators last month that the crisis-level staffing shortages have meant hospitals are sometimes unable to discharge patients to nursing home care because, while there are beds available, there aren’t enough staff to care for more residents. More than 500 homebound Mainers approved for home care visits have received none at all because of staff shortages, she testified, the majority of whom were nursing home-eligible.

“There just aren’t enough workers to meet the demand we have right now, and unless we do something drastically different older people are going to be left without care,” she says, adding that elderly care work needs to be made as appealing as being a firefighter or a police officer. “It’s going to take a whole mind-set change, a significant investment in the social economy and a new vision of how we want to treat our older people to make this work.”

March 23, 2020: A classroom sits empty at Scarborough Middle School after the town’s schools announced that they would remain closed until at least April 27. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

LEARNING LOSSES

Schoolchildren are thankfully less affected by COVID-19, apparently less likely to get infected when exposed and unlikely to become seriously ill when they are. With masking and social distancing in place, schools that have opened for in-person instruction part or full time have proved no more dangerous than the community as a whole, and there have been only a few cases of in-school transmission.

Research on the subject is fragmentary, but the available data suggest Maine students fell well behind in their studies compared to an ordinary year, especially last spring, when they were forced into remote learning with little forewarning, and some without home internet connections.

In the fall, standardized tests to measure student progress showed substantial declines, especially for younger children who are not yet ready for independent learning. Gorham schools saw the number of second-graders meeting reading expectations fall from 77 percent in 2019 to 57 percent last fall, and by more than 10 percent in math. National studies suggest the average student lost a third of the expected progress in reading and half in math during the spring surge.

Many high schools, many of which had more limited in-person learning, reported sharp increases in course failure rates in the first quarter of this school year. The failure rate for Brunswick High School juniors jumped from 10.5 percent to 22.6 percent compared to the previous year. Biddeford High School failures went from 12 percent to 21 percent, and at Portland and Deering high schools from 23 percent to 31 percent.

“Right now we’re seeing that remote learning in general just isn’t as robust as in-person strategies, and that remote learning environments really differed from place to place,” says Mara Tieken, associate professor of education at Bates College, who studies rural public education. “One of the biggest challenges was access to the internet and technology in general, and poorer, more rural districts often found it a lot more difficult to deal with remote and hybrid learning.”

The effect of pandemic-forced isolation on children’s well-being generally is also unknown. “All students have been affected by not being around their peer groups and friends, but adolescents are really affected by that,” Tieken says, noting national upticks in teen suicides and downticks in low-income student applications to college.

May 12, 2020: Hospital workers from Maine Medical Center watch a flyover by the National Guard to honor medical professionals and first responders. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

HOSPITALS WEATHERED SURGE

Hospitals have, of course, been on the front line of the pandemic, but their experience has been a bright spot, in part because widespread compliance with masking and other public health measures did in fact “flatten the curve,” sparing medical centers from being overwhelmed in the worst periods of the crisis.

The worst stress came between Christmas and mid-January, the peak of a winter surge that appeared to be propelled by holiday gatherings. But while forecasting models had suggested Maine might run out of intensive care beds, the state’s major medical centers were all able to bring more capacity on line through the conversion of “swing beds” in rooms designed to be easily turned into ICUs if needed. The state’s three major hospital networks built up COVID-19 care capacity at many of their smaller hospitals – places like PenBay Medical Center in Rockport, Bridgton Hospital or A.G. Gould in Presque Isle – to free up the big medical centers to help the most acutely affected patients.

The heaviest day anywhere in the state was Dec. 31 at Bangor’s Eastern Maine Medical Center, which had 55 confirmed inpatients at once but managed to avoid radically reducing other kinds of scheduled procedures. For Maine Medical Center in Portland, the state’s largest hospital with 613 beds, the peak came the third week in January, when it averaged more than 40 such patients a day in addition to all the other conditions, diseases and injuries it treated in a normal winter week.

“We were extremely full at Maine Med, and there were several weeks where a lot of surgeries and other procedures had to be postponed because we just didn’t have the room,” says Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at the hospital’s parent entity, MaineHealth. “We were extremely grateful the numbers came down a bit, because it was extremely stressful on everybody.”

March 18, 2020: Andy Pillsbury, assistant bar manager at The Great Lost Bear, puts barstools on the bar while closing up the popular restaurant. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

TOURISM SURVIVED, BUT WORKER SHORTAGE

Maine’s tourism industry had a surprisingly decent and disease-free summer last year as restaurants, businesses and tourists adopted measures to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

Hotels, which were never under shutdown orders, have recovered surprisingly well. Whereas revenue per available hotel room in Maine – a key industry indicator – fell from $70.50 per night in May 2019 to $18 a night in May 2020, it was off by only 15 percent year over year in December, according to statistics collected by STR Global, a tourism consultancy.

Restaurants were hit harder, though statistics are difficult to come by. Many of them went into “hibernation” at the start of the year, laying off employees and lying low with state or federal relief grants through the remaining winter months, says Steve Hewins, who was the CEO of HospitalityMaine, the hotel and restaurant trade group, until last month.

Advanced bookings for this summer are, in Hewins’ words, “off the charts,” but the big challenge ahead will be finding enough workers to fully reopen seasonal and hibernating tourism businesses alike. President Donald Trump severely curtailed the temporary guest worker visa program many businesses relied on, and many foreign students on J1 visas won’t be coming this year because of border closures. “Between the two that’s 10,000 people who come to Maine to work in the summer and sometimes have been coming to work at the same place for a long time,” Hewins says.

Visitors and Mainers alike will probably be forgoing larger audience art and entertainment for the foreseeable future, as indoor gathering caps remain at 50 and large venues remain closed. “Performing arts venues have been slammed the most,” says Dinah Minot, executive director of Creative Portland, which supports that city’s arts scene. “Many large anchor organizations have funds in reserve or the ability to raise funds through donors, but there’s a lot of concern about some of the smaller venues.”

Portland has already lost one fixture of the entertainment scene, Port City Music Hall, which, like many movie theater chains, was unable to hold out. But many visual artists have been able to keep working, and some musicians have seized on the tourless year to write and record.

“It’s incredibly depressing and frightening and scary to be in this period of uncertainty, but it’s a pretty strong community, and I haven’t heard of many artists who have been forced out of Portland,” Minot says.

A survey of 231 Maine arts and culture organizations by Americans for the Arts released last month found that 88 percent are confident of their survival, even as 71 percent reported “severe financial impact.” Overall pandemic losses in Maine through mid-February were pegged at $14.7 million.

July 22, 2020: Howard and Sheryl Search moved back to Maine from Virginia when their real estate agent, L. Ryan Haggerty, helped them find a home in Brunswick. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

REMOTE-WORKING REAL ESTATE BOOM?

One sector that’s been booming through the pandemic is real estate, with Maine breaking records month after month as out-of-state buyers flock to buy homes here. The sales volume of single-family homes in 2020 as a whole – 19,921 – broke the record set the year before by 9.8 percent, even as the median price jumped by 14 percent. Growth was concentrated in rural counties north of Lewiston and east of Bath.

One in three buyers was from out of state, compared to one in four before the pandemic, and that may indicate a surge of people moving here to remote-work while away from pandemic hotspots, a possible harbinger of the future.

“Americans have just gone through watching news reports on how states are doing and seeing Maine as one of the safest places in the country,” says Alan Caron, a smart-growth advocate and former independent gubernatorial candidate. “It’s a beautiful place that’s safe and a good place to raise kids and has good schools. The barrier was that people didn’t think they could do the work they had and live up here.”

Now, with people in many industries realizing they can remote-work from here, Caron expects a surge in year-round residents, especially in places within an hour of the Portland and Bangor airports. The surge could provide the foundation for new businesses and industries, long hobbled by workforce shortages.

“That means we’ve got to look at things we’ve never thought about, like expanding transit and building communities around it, preserving open space and figuring out how to accommodate new housing or different kinds of housing,” Caron says. “And we’ll need to be a much more welcoming state for all kinds of people who come here because we need them.”

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