Gov. Janet Mills praised state officials and thanked Maine residents for their work fighting the coronavirus Wednesday, hours before the end of a state of civil emergency that has given the administration sweeping powers to enact public health measures over the last 16 months.

“It’s not that we’ve cured the disease, or that we’ve banned the virus or removed the pandemic forever from our lives, or that we’ve thrown caution to the wind or that everything now is exactly how it was 16 months ago, but the state of civil emergency is no longer necessary,” Mills said. “It is over and it is time.”

Mills was joined by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah and Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services at the final regularly scheduled media briefing on COVID-19. All three recognized the many lives lost during the course of the pandemic – a total of 858 in Maine – and the more than 69,000 people in the state who have gotten sick with the virus.

The state of civil emergency, which ends at midnight Wednesday, was declared on March 15, 2020, three days after the first reported case of coronavirus in Maine. Over the last year and a half, the order has allowed the administration to enact measures such as mandatory masking, gathering and indoor capacity limits and rules for operating schools. Virtually all of those restrictions had already been lifted.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks to the media Wednesday while Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, listens during the last regularly scheduled coronavirus news conference in the cabinet room of the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In her remarks Wednesday, Mills reflected on what living under the state of civil emergency has entailed for Mainers. People of all faiths had to find new ways to worship. Teachers, bus drivers and school staff had to deliver homework and meals to students. Restaurants were limited to takeout and curbside pickup. Graduations were held in parking lots and weddings were postponed.

“The adjustments we made to meet the challenges of a new and changing virus would not have been possible without the commitment of Maine people,” Mills said. “We asked you to stay home. We asked people to wear masks and avoid large gatherings and you did.”

Mills also thanked her administration and cabinet for their support and response. “They’ve been brainstorming day after day for 16 months, problem solving every step of the way,” she said.

Over the last year, the administration has distributed $1.25 billion in CARES coronavirus relief funds, partnered with federal authorities to deliver vaccines throughout the state and invested significantly in public health and safety, including through the procurement of personal protective equipment, child care for front-line workers and pandemic assistance for people who are homeless, food insecure or otherwise marginalized.

The end of the state of emergency comes as Maine is continuing to lead the nation in vaccination rates and containing the spread of COVID-19. The state reported 12 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases reported to date to 69,033. The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 24.4, compared to 30.4 a week ago and 181.7 a month ago. Thirty people in Maine were hospitalized with COVID-19 Wednesday, including 18 in critical care and eight on ventilators.

Vaccinations continue, although at a slower pace. Through Wednesday, 785,115 people in Maine had received their final dose of COVID-19 vaccine, representing 58.4 percent of the state’s 1.3 million residents.

Research is ongoing, but early results indicate vaccines have lasting effectiveness. At this time, there has been no indication of a need for revaccination or boosters in the near future, Robert Long, a spokesman for the Maine CDC, said in an email.

Officials Wednesday issued a reminder that while many Mainers are now vaccinated and most precautions have been lifted, the virus is still present and poses a risk, especially for the unvaccinated. Four cases of the Delta variant, a highly infectious form of the virus first detected in India, had been identified in Maine as of Monday, Shah said.

 

Vaccines have shown good effectiveness against the Delta variant, but Shah said there is still concern for unvaccinated populations, including in Maine counties where the vaccination rates are not as high as the state vaccination rate. The World Health Organization and officials in Los Angeles County, in response to the Delta variant, said this week that even vaccinated individuals should continue to wear masks to protect themselves. The U.S. CDC, however, has not adopted that guidance. Shah said Maine also is not making changes to its masking guidance in response to the variant.

“What the WHO noted– what one official noted when he made those comments – is he was really referring to places in the world where vaccination rates are 1 or 2 or 3 percent,” Shah said. “When I followed up with him on whether that would apply to places like Maine where vaccination rates are high, he said, ‘No, I think you should stick with what you’re doing.'”

Because of  the state’s high rate of vaccination, COVID-19 cases are under much better control in Maine. But Shah said there is still work to be done to get more people vaccinated. “Our job now is to figure out who hasn’t been vaccinated in Maine, why they haven’t been vaccinated and what, beyond a chance to win about $900,000 in the Vaccinationland Sweepstakes, will prompt them to get their shot,” Shah said, referencing the state’s cash giveaway for vaccinated residents, the deadline for which to enter is midnight Wednesday.

There will continue to be cases, outbreaks, hospitalizations and even deaths from COVID, but how much those will impact daily life will depend in part on how many people get vaccinated. “COVID-19 vaccines have fundamentally altered our relationship to COVID-19,” Shah said. “A year ago our lives revolved around the virus, like earth around the sun, but now for those who are fully vaccinated the virus effectively revolves around them, unable to cause much harm.”


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