For the first time since students returned from the holiday break, the number of COVID-19 cases in Maine schools has dropped.

According to data from the Maine Department of Education, there have been 11,591 cases in schools over the last 30 days. That’s down from 12,967 from the previous week. Cases had been rising steadily in schools since students came back on Jan. 3.

The department also reported 38 schools with outbreaks – at least 15 percent of staff and students out sick. That’s down from 44 a week earlier.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals increased slightly Thursday, but the number in critical care fell to its lowest point since Oct. 23.

There were 308 people being treated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s an increase of four since Wednesday, but still down 29 percent from the omicron peak of 436 set nearly a month ago.

Of those currently hospitalized, 66 are in critical care, about half the record total set on Dec. 19 and the lowest since Oct. 22.


Although hospitalizations have now fallen well below the January peak, hospitals are still struggling with large numbers of patients and staffing shortages caused by the omicron wave.

The drop in cases in schools came on the same day state health officials met with superintendents to discuss what changes, if any, might be under consideration on safety precautions in schools – masks chief among them.

Dating back to last year, the Maine CDC has strongly recommended universal masking in schools but has allowed local districts to set their own policies. Most have followed the state’s guidance.

In recent weeks, other states have signaled that they plan to lift mask mandates in schools soon, although many would still give local communities the authority to keep them in place, which is what Maine has done.

Other places have stood firm. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said she does not plan to drop the city’s mask mandate in schools until she sees more downward trends in case positivity rates and hospitalizations.

Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah stressed Wednesday that the state has not had a mask mandate for schools, although it’s important to note that the standard operating procedure set by the Maine education department calls for strict universal masking to allow the quarantine period for close contacts to be reduced from 10 days to five.


Any changes to the standard operating procedure regarding masks could give districts more freedom to drop their requirements, although it’s not clear if superintendents and health officials discussed that Thursday.

The Education and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the Maine School Superintendent Association, issued a statement late Thursday that characterized the meeting as productive, although no immediate changes were announced.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said officials, “will continue to evaluate public health recommendations for schools, including testing and masking, that will help keep students safely in Maine classrooms.”

“The Maine School Superintendent Association and our members appreciate the ongoing conversations with Maine CDC,” added Eileen King, executive director of the superintendent association. “We hope that our concerns and experiences will help to guide a plan forward that will safely reduce the need for mitigation strategies against COVID-19 in schools.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, an infectious-disease expert with the Brown University School of Public Health, posted a lengthy thread Thursday on Twitter outlining his opinions on masking in schools, which has increasingly become a flashpoint as the pandemic enters year three.

“I’ve been a strong proponent of masking in schools,” he wrote. “So as we enter a new phase, do we need to keep masking for the foreseeable future? I don’t think so. Should we ban masks in schools today? No. Let’s find a middle path.”


Jha went on to say that masks clearly reduce transmission, but now that vaccines are available to all school-age children and infections are dropping, it’s time to think about phasing them out.

His recommendation would be to wait a few more weeks. March might make sense for some states, while April is more reasonable for others. He also said local school districts should make the decisions.

“The bottom line is that kids and masking in schools has been an emotional flashpoint. I get why,” Jha wrote. “Let’s be patient and let communities come to a decision that is right for them. For some, it might mean masks off in 2 weeks. Others? Two months.”

As has happened in Maine, hospitalizations have fallen across the country, to a seven-day average of 102,695, according to the U.S. CDC. That’s down 30 percent from the omicron peak in mid-January, but still higher than any point during the delta surge last fall.

Deaths have not come down yet. The U.S. is still averaging more than 2,300 every day, and more than 900,000 Americans have died with COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Maine health officials reported three additional deaths Thursday, bringing the pandemic total to 1,822 here.


Maine is one of the most vaccinated states in the country and has had one of the lowest rates of death since the start of the pandemic. Within the state, death rates have been highest in counties with lower vaccination rates. The patterns are consistent with other data that show the vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness and that unvaccinated people are much more likely to be hospitalized or die.

Other data continue to show the omicron surge that began in December is now subsiding in Maine and nationwide.

The state’s daily count of new cases – 1,115 on Thursday – is no longer a useful way to measure the pandemic because of a massive backlog in positive tests, as well as the increased use of at-home tests that are not included in the counts.

However, the number of positive tests submitted each day to the state for review has dropped steadily from a weekday average of 3,184 positive tests in mid-January to a weekday average of 1,404 last week. Not all positive tests become confirmed cases, in part because some people are retested after being infected.

Expanded wastewater testing also is providing evidence of a decline in the omicron wave.

This week, the Maine CDC website for the first-time reported results of wastewater testing in a number of communities, including Portland, Bangor, Brunswick, Lewiston-Auburn, York and Augusta, among others. Most are showing a decrease in virus prevalence, including a 27 percent drop at the Portland Water District’s East End sewage treatment plant in testing done on Feb. 2 compared to Jan. 31 results, and a 15 percent decline at the Westbrook plant during the same time frame.

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