The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine fell below 250 on Wednesday for the first time in more than three months.

The total of 249 patients is a 43 percent decrease from the pandemic high of 436 on Jan. 13 and offers another encouraging sign that the landscape is fast improving. The number of critically ill patients also continues to decline, with 63 in intensive care and 29 on ventilators as of Wednesday.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said the steady decrease in hospitalizations, coupled with other metrics that show transmission is waning, have prompted state health officials to think more seriously about updating masking recommendations for public schools.

“We’re not there yet,” he said during a media briefing Wednesday. “The trends are encouraging and favorable, but what we’re looking for now is continued stability. The bullet train of omicron is slowing down, but it’s not time to let off the brakes.”

Shah said the plan is to wait until after February school vacation, which is next week, before meeting again to consider new masking guidance.

Currently, the Maine CDC strongly recommends universal masking in schools, but school districts are permitted to set their own policies. Most have followed the CDC guidance, and if that guidance changes, many schools likely will follow suit. Several other states in recent days have loosened mask requirements in schools and superintendents in Maine have been asking for more flexibility.


Shah did announce one immediate change Wednesday. Previously, schools that wanted to eliminate contact tracing could only do so if they had mask mandates. Now, that requirement no longer exists. Contact tracing involves identifying and contacting anyone who came in close contact with an infected person, something that became especially challenging during the fast-moving omicron wave.

To help limit potential spread of the virus following school vacation, the Mills administration also announced Wednesday that it’s opening eligibility for free tests to all residents.


Last month, Maine joined five other states in a pilot program funded by The Rockefeller Foundation to mail five free rapid tests to 25,000 households in certain communities that were considered underserved. That program became open to anyone as of Wednesday. Residents can visit the Project ACT website,, to place an order. No payment information is required, and the tests will be delivered through Amazon approximately one week after ordering.

Meanwhile, the state reported nine additional COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, as well as 3,556 new cases, many of which were from a backlog of tests that had built up following the holiday season. Roughly 11,000 new cases were added Tuesday.

The reason the CDC is reporting large batches of cases this week is because it recently switched to a partly automated system of case investigation. Previously, CDC staff were unable to keep up with the massive swell of new tests during the omicron wave, which led to a backlog that reached more than 55,000. Shah said the backlog has been reduced to about 30,000, but he added that even when it’s cleared, he doesn’t see daily case counts as a reliable metric, simply because of the increased number of home tests being used.


Despite the high number of cases added recently, other metrics tracked by the Maine CDC show virus transmission declining steadily. The average number of raw positive tests coming in each day has fallen to 597, down from 2,488 per day exactly one month ago. The positivity rate – or the percentage of all tests that come back positive – has dropped to 7.9 percent. A month ago, during the omicron peak, it was above 20 percent.

Hospitalizations also are falling fast across the country. The seven-day average this week is 80,185, down 45 percent from the peak of 146,534 on Jan. 20, the U.S. CDC said.

Deaths, meanwhile, have not come down dramatically. The U.S. is still averaging more than 2,000 deaths every day and more than 920,000 Americans have died with COVID-19 during the pandemic, including 1,858 Maine residents.


Shortly before Wednesday’s Maine CDC briefing, the Biden administration’s COVID response team provided an update on the pandemic.

U.S. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said her agency is not yet changing mask guidance, which recommends them in areas of substantial or high community transmission. That’s still about 97 percent of all counties in the country.


“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better,” she said, without offering a specific timeline.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said he’s encouraged by the trends, but warned against rushing to do away with all precautions.

“As a result of all this progress and the tools we now have, we’re moving toward a time when COVID isn’t a crisis but something we can protect against and treat,” he said.

Shah made a similar argument. He said with the widespread availability of vaccines, including boosters, and of therapeutic drugs to treat COVID-19, Maine and the U.S. are well equipped to handle what might lie ahead.

“We shouldn’t assume that COVID will forever be in the rearview mirror,” he said, adding that it may become seasonal, not unlike the flu. “But we can steel ourselves such that if and when those upswings happen … we can spot them and respond accordingly.”

Shah did encourage people who test positive for COVID-19 and who might be at high risk to contact their health care provider to see if they are a candidate for therapeutics. The key, he said, is to get tested as soon as symptoms arrive because “treatments must be started early in order to work.”



As for vaccinations, they have dropped off in Maine in 2022 after demand had increased before the holiday season, mostly from people seeking booster shots and children 5-11.

Overall, 983,510 residents have gotten two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson version. That’s 73.2 percent of the population. Additionally, 572,328 (42.6 percent) of state residents have gotten boosters. Both are among the highest rates of any state.

However, there remain big gaps between southern and coastal counties, which have higher rates, and rural, inland counties, which have lower rates.

Numerous real-world studies have shown that the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 is far greater for those who are unvaccinated, and that tracks with data in Maine as well.

Since Jan. 1, 2021, when vaccines started to become available, counties with the lowest rates have generally seen far more deaths per capita than counties with high vaccination rates.

Oxford County, for example, has lost 15.6 of every 10,000 people in that time and has the fourth-lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents at 63 percent. Piscataquis County has vaccinated just 60.5 percent of residents and has a death rate of 14.9 per 10,000.

Cumberland County, on the other hand, has recorded 6.9 deaths per 10,000 residents, third lowest, and has by far the highest vaccination rate, 83.8 percent. Knox County has the second-highest vaccination rate, 78.5 percent, and the fewest deaths, 4.5 per 10,000 people.

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