Portland and two other communities in southern Maine ended their indoor mask mandates on Thursday as virus transmission and hospitalizations from COVID-19 continued to decline.

Beyond Portland, the town councils in Freeport and Bath each voted Wednesday night to repeal their mask requirements immediately. Two more communities – South Portland and Brunswick – will revisit their mask mandates at meetings next week.

Additionally, the Catholic Diocese of Portland announced that it plans to lift masking requirements for its eight schools on March 7.

Public school districts across the state are likely going to wait for updated guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention before making any changes to masking rules, but that could come shortly after February vacation next week. CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Wednesday that it makes sense to start thinking about new guidance but also said “we’re not there yet.”

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

U.S. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky also said this week that updated guidance on masking is likely coming soon, but she didn’t set a timeline. Currently, federal recommendations are that people should wear masks indoors and in crowded settings in communities where transmission is substantial or high. That’s roughly 97 percent of all U.S. counties, including all 16 counties in Maine.


“We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals,” Walensky said during a White House briefing Wednesday. “We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.”

Maine health officials reported 25 more deaths of people with COVID-19 on Thursday, although most of them occurred weeks or months earlier and were added after a periodic review of death certificates. Thursday’s update brings the total number of Maine people who have died during the pandemic to 1,883.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Maine hospitals, meanwhile, dropped to 247, the lowest total since Nov. 13 and a decrease of 39 percent in just the last month. Of those hospitalized, 63 are in critical care, the lowest number since mid-October. The high mark for critical care patients was 133 on Dec. 19.


The Maine CDC also continues to process a massive backlog of cases and on Thursday added 3,784 confirmed cases to the pandemic total.

Those cases were reported to the state as positive tests over the past several weeks but were not processed immediately because the CDC has been overwhelmed during the omicron surge. The state has now streamlined the review process and is using a partially automated system to clear the backlog. The dramatic spike in confirmed cases in recent days does not reflect an actual rise in infections.


In fact, real-time indicators all continue to point to a decline in infections and illnesses. Based on wastewater testing, hospitalizations and other metrics, pandemic trends have steadily improved during the past several weeks, both in Maine and nationwide.

The number of positive tests submitted to the Maine CDC, for example, is averaging 530 over the last seven days. That’s down from 1,429 positive tests on average two weeks ago and 2,472 tests daily this time last month.

Chris Neilson of Saco shows his vaccination status as he enters the Fire & Ice Gala on Thursday night at the 2nd annual Carnaval ME Winter Festival. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The number COVID-19 cases in schools decreased for the second consecutive week as well, according to data tracked by the Maine Department of Education.

Over the last 30 days, there have been 8,834 cases among students and staff, although many of those are likely no longer considered active. This time last week, there were 11,591 cases reported in the most recent 30-day period. Outbreaks decreased from 38 last week to 22 this week.

Across the country, hospitalizations have fallen dramatically, from about 146,000 a little more than one month ago, to 80,000 this week, according to the U.S. CDC. Deaths are coming down, too, although not quite as fast. There are still 2,100 deaths nationwide every day attributable to COVID-19, compared with about 2,500 two weeks ago.



The positive trends in recent weeks have reignited the debate over mask-wearing in public. Several states have loosened their requirements and others are likely waiting for updated guidance from the U.S. CDC.

In Maine, the number of communities with mask requirements is dwindling. As for schools, most still require masking, but Shah signaled Wednesday that could be changing.


He said health officials will monitor transmission in the days following vacation week to see if trends are still headed in the right direction.

Maine’s Catholic schools chose March 7 as a date to end the mandate to make sure there aren’t any outbreaks or rise in cases from February break.

“Though masks will no longer be required, teachers and students who wish to continue to mask will certainly be allowed to do so,” said Marianne Pelletier, superintendent of Maine Catholic Schools.


Maine’s colleges and universities still have mask requirements, at least through next month, but officials are closely watching trends to see if any changes are warranted.

Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the University of Maine System, said masks are required on campus until March 20, but that could change pending developments at the state or federal level. Cases have been dropping steadily at each of the system’s schools.

To help limit any 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, AccessCovidTests.org, to place an order. No payment information is required, and the tests will be delivered through Amazon approximately one week after ordering.

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