State health officials are advising Maine schools to follow new federal COVID-19 guidelines for quarantine and isolation, which should help keep students in classrooms despite the potential for a surge in cases caused by the omicron variant.

“These new guidelines do apply to students in school settings,” Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director, said Wednesday. “This is a big step forward. Our goal has been to keep kids in the classroom as much possible and as safely as possible. These new guidelines are another step in that direction.”

The gist of the new guidelines – which Shah expects the federal CDC to specifically tailor to schools in the next few days – is to shorten quarantine and isolation periods for those infected with or exposed to COVID-19 from 10 days to five, followed by wearing a mask around other people for the next five days.

Shah said the new guidelines will likely be finalized either when school begins next week or shortly afterward. The U.S. CDC came out with the new recommendations Monday.

The new guidelines say that adults who are more than six months past their final dose must have received a booster to avoid a five-day quarantine after close contact with an infected person.

But students who have had both shots, including middle and high school students age 12-17, will not need to quarantine, even though boosters are available for those 16 and older. This will help keep vaccinated students in school, Shah said.


The U.S. CDC must still clarify how the rules apply to 18-year-olds – largely limited to high school seniors. If federal health officials do not address this soon, the Maine CDC will do so after school starts next week, agency spokesman Robert Long said.

Elementary-age schoolchildren – 5- to 11-year-olds – were approved for vaccinations in November and are not yet six months past their second dose, so vaccinated students in that age group will not need to quarantine after a virus exposure.

Unvaccinated students will still be subject to the five-day quarantine and isolation rules. In all cases, whether for vaccinated or unvaccinated students, masks are recommended for 10 days after exposure.

Federal health officials said the guideline changes reflect that an infected person is less likely to spread the virus after five days, although some have criticized the guidance because infected people can be contagious longer than that. Shah said the new rules are a balancing act between safety and offering rules that are more realistic, and more likely to be followed.

“We know quarantine and isolation are hard on people,” Shah said. COVID-19 is also far more contagious in the first five days than in days six through 10, he said.

Maine reported 1,325 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 18 additional deaths. A backlog in positive tests submitted to the state means some cases reported Wednesday are from earlier this month, and do not reflect an accurate daily count.


Hospitalizations in Maine increased to 331 Wednesday, up slightly from 330 Tuesday. They are down from a peak of 387 on Dec. 21, but high enough to continue to tax hospital resources. About two-thirds of all COVID-19 patients – and about 90 percent of intensive care patients – are unvaccinated, according to state health officials.

Federal ambulance crews are arriving this week to help transport patients and free up hospital capacity. But hospitals also are bracing for more patients as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads across the state.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said during a media briefing Wednesday that it’s difficult to predict what the omicron variant, which is now the dominant variant in the U.S., will mean for hospitals in the coming weeks.

Analysis of hospitalized patients in other countries that have seen omicron surges, as well as other research, suggests the variant tends to be less severe than delta and other variants. But because omicron is more transmissible, hospitals may still be hit with a surge of patients, Jarvis said.

“The overall number of hospitalizations may not go down. In fact, it may go up,” Jarvis said.

Shah said “the scientific jury is still out on what omicron means from a severity point of view.”


Also on Wednesday, the Mills administration announced that Medicaid reimbursement rate increases for nursing homes and residential care facilities will increase starting on Jan. 1, rather than in July, to help retain and attract workers as the pandemic enters a third year.

Pay for direct care workers will be at least 125 percent of the state’s minimum wage, according to a law passed by the Maine Legislature in 2021. On Jan. 1, the state minimum wage will increase to $12.75 per hour.

“Providing quality care for Maine’s most vulnerable people takes commitment and compassion. Our nurses, direct care workers, and assisted living staff have proven they have both, especially during the pandemic,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “Our direct care workers deserve pay that matches the important work they do for Maine people. It is my hope that increasing these rates will allow facilities to increase staff wages in the new year and help them recruit and retain committed and compassionate workers.”


The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 733 Wednesday, compared to 933 a week ago and 404 a month ago, although at least some the decline is because case counts were not done over the holiday weekend.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending a total of 16 emergency medical technicians and paramedics in teams of two to eight hospitals across the state, and equipping each team with an ambulance. Crews are expected to stay in Maine until Jan. 26.


Ambulance crews will help transport patients between hospitals or to rehabilitation centers so hospitals can more quickly make room for new patients.

“Patient transports are an important piece of the puzzle in terms of maximizing our capacity,” Porter said on Tuesday.

Ambulance crews arrived Tuesday at Northern Light Health’s Eastern Maine Medical Center Bangor, which is sharing two crews with St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.

“Every bit of support makes a difference, and we are grateful they are here,” said Paul Bolin, senior vice president at Northern Light Health.

Also on Wednesday, Maine Medical Center announced a new visitation policy to limit visitors during the surge. No visitors will be allowed except for pediatric patients, who can have one parent or guardian per day, and obstetrics patients, who can have one support person, plus a doula, during labor and delivery. Pediatric patients can also have one parent or guardian accompany them in emergency rooms and in ambulatory and diagnostic areas.

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