Maine schools are facing a surge in COVID-19 cases as omicron spreads through the state, leading one Cumberland County high school to report an official outbreak on Thursday, four days after returning from winter break.

Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff sent a letter Thursday to the school community notifying families that Yarmouth High School was in outbreak status, which the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines as having at least 15 percent of the students and staff absent. Yarmouth said it had 81 positive or probable cases in the district as of Thursday after having a total of 80 cases districtwide during the entire first half of the school year.

Yarmouth’s COVID-19 dashboard showed that there were 43 cases at the high school on Thursday. That is roughly 8 percent of the school’s enrollment of 550 students listed on the state Department of Education website and well below the CDC’s 15 percent outbreak threshold. It wasn’t clear why the district said the school is in outbreak status and emails sent late Thursday to Dolloff and Principal Eric Klein were not returned.

Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin told lawmakers at a meeting Thursday of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that schools across the state are doing their best to keep students in class “in spite of unfathomable challenges that continue to be presented by this ongoing pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals remained at a near-record high Thursday as the state reported 1,302 new cases and 10 additional deaths.

A total of 380 people were hospitalized, two fewer than the day before but 51 more than this time last week. Of those in the hospital, 114 were in critical care and 55 were on ventilators. Roughly 70 percent of all people currently hospitalized are unvaccinated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the percentage is even higher among those in critical care.

The latest jump in hospitalizations in Maine comes as more and more health care workers are being forced to call out sick because of exposure to the virus. Maine Army National Guard members are assisting in some facilities and crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are helping in others, but the situation is tenuous.

The Maine Department of Education reported on Thursday that there have been 4,946 cases of COVID reported in school populations, which includes students and staff, in the last 30 days. The number of infections reported by the state in mid-December, just prior to winter break, was about 6,200.

Although the official number of COVID cases in schools is down from a peak in December, the number reported Thursday appears to be undercounted in some districts. The state lists 39 COVID cases in Yarmouth, for example, but the district said it has 81 positive or probable cases.

Some schools returned from winter break this week to find themselves with large numbers of students and staff absent because of infections or exposures, testing their ability to retain in-person learning during a pandemic.

A shortage of bus drivers because of exposures to COVID-19 forced the Bonny Eagle school district to cancel classes Tuesday and alter the schedule for the rest of this week, with high school and middle school students switching to remote classes.

Maine School Administrative District 6 Superintendent Paul Penna said Tuesday that he was forced to cancel school because too many bus drivers had called out sick because of exposures to people infected by COVID-19.

According to state figures, other districts in southern Maine have been hit hard by COVID. The Biddeford district, for example, is one of the highest in Maine with 90 cases at its high school, middle school, intermediate school and primary school. Gorham High School and Gorham Middle School are reporting more than 40 cases of COVID. Bonny Eagle High School and middle school have 66 cases.

Schools also are adjusting to new guidelines that are intended to keep students in school as omicron fuels more cases and exposures.

NEW GUIDELINES

Deputy Education Commissioner Daniel Chuhta briefed lawmakers Thursday on new guidelines for schools issued by the state last Friday. The changes, he said, “really begin to address the spike that we’re seeing with omicron, but also I would say the secondary priority that Maine CDC had was to make provisions for keeping as many students as possible in schools because they also recognize the benefit of in-person learning.”

The changes include shortening the time that students or staff have to isolate or quarantine after a COVID-19 infection or exposure to five days from 10 days. The other change involves declaring an outbreak when 15 percent of a school’s students or staff are absent. Previously, outbreak investigations were begun when three or more cases of COVID-19 were identified.

Among more than 22,000 employees of MaineHealth, the state’s largest system, 842 were out sick with COVID-19 on Wednesday. And at Northern Light Health, 493 employees out of 12,000 systemwide were either out sick with COVID-19 or quarantining at home while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.

HOSPITALIZATIONS RISING STEADILY

Hospitals across the country are seeing similar impacts, and hospitalizations have been rising steadily across the U.S. for nearly two months, even more so since Christmas. According to the U.S. CDC, the number of daily patients is 85,423, which is 39 percent higher than two weeks earlier.

Although there is some research that suggests the omicron variant is a milder form of the coronavirus, because it’s so contagious, it’s still leading to an increase in hospitalizations, especially for those who are unvaccinated or have other risk factors.

With Thursday’s total, the state has now tracked more than 150,000 confirmed or probable cases of the virus since the pandemic reached the state in March 2020, according to the Maine CDC. While a staggering total, Maine remains one of the states with the lowest transmission per capita. Only Vermont, Hawaii and Oregon have lower rates.

The seven-day case average now stands at 745, compared to 909 cases on average two weeks ago and 624 cases per day this time last month. But daily case counts are becoming a less reliable metric for tracking the virus’ spread because tests are so hard to come by and because many people are using at-home tests whose results don’t always get reported to state officials.

Still, health officials expect official case counts to continue rising as the omicron variant takes hold.

“Although we are still officially at 8.75 percent of all positives in the state being omicron, we know that this is an undercount, indeed likely a dramatic undercount,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday. “Based on data that we’ve received from laboratories across the state in recent days, the prevalence of omicron is certainly much greater, such that the omicron variant is well established at this point.

“The question for omicron is whether the graph of cases it generates will look like a giant wave like the delta variant or like a sharp icicle, rising very quickly and then falling very quickly, as happened in South Africa.”

U.S. CASES HIGHEST OF PANDEMIC

Across the U.S., the seven-day average has risen to more than 500,000 cases, which is the highest of the pandemic, although some of it is attributable to massive backlogs of cases that were reported all at once by many states. Deaths are still averaging more than 1,200 every day.

Not that long along, Maine was among the states seeing the highest level of transmission per capita. Now, it’s among the lowest, according to the U.S. CDC. Over the last seven days, Maine’s rate of new cases is third lowest, behind Idaho and Montana. That’s less reflective of any drop-off here and more a result of cases increasingly exponentially elsewhere.

Asked if he thought Maine might see a similar vertical rise in cases that other states have seen recently, Shah said, emphatically, “yes.”

Vaccinations, meanwhile, have dropped off somewhat in Maine after an increase in demand before the holiday. The state was routinely administering 10,000 doses or more most days last month but hasn’t reached that threshold since Dec. 21. Overall, the state has administered 962,726 final doses of vaccine, which accounts for 71.6 percent of all residents, and 487,790 (36.3 percent) have gotten boosters. But there remain large pockets of unvaccinated people, especially children, in many parts of the state.


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