First the bad news. Maine has been recording high daily COVID-19 case counts consistently in November, sparking experts’ fear that unless residents double down on safety measures, Mainers will sicken at higher rates in the months to come, with deaths inevitable. Now the good news. Results of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine trials give hope that the pandemic will not control our lives forever, but instead will eventually be controlled by us. The bad and good news together mean that following guidelines this winter will help Mainers see the other side of the pandemic, and enjoy better days ahead.
On November 13, 243 new cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed, which was the highest single-day increase since the beginning of the pandemic. The latest 7-day daily case average is 182.6, which is much higher than it has ever been in Maine. 1340 health care workers have tested positive. The total case count on November 16 was 9,117. Of these, 3,270 were in Cumberland County, with 70 deaths and 215 hospitalizations; 1,814 were in York County, with 24 deaths and 111 hospitalizations; 1,203 were in Androscoggin County, with 14 deaths and 68 hospitalizations.
Experts are very alarmed by the case numbers and the many recent outbreaks and warn the public to avoid social gatherings, and wear masks properly, so that they cover the nose and mouth. Data shows that community transmission is high in all counties in Maine other than Piscataquis and Aroostook County – and even in those two counties community transmission is evident. This means that even though the virus is invisible, it is all around us, spreading rapidly from person to person.
“The surge that we predicted has arrived, and it has arrived with force …Just in the past 13 days across Maine, the situation with respect to COVID-19 has gotten significantly worse …What we have feared for so long that may be coming as the weather changes and as folks change their socializing pattern is now squarely in front of us,” said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
To control the spread, the Mills administration tightened traveling restrictions and announced that effective November 16, Massachusetts is no longer exempt from state traveling mandates for out of state travelers to Maine – in other words, anyone coming to Maine from Massachusetts must either test negative for the virus within 72 hours of arrival or stay at home for 14 days and not go out in public – even to grocery stores – once they get here. This is now the case for travelers from all states other than Vermont and New Hampshire, and applies to Mainers leaving the state for day trips to neighboring states.
Papy Bongibo, President of the Congolese Community of Maine, urged his community to follow the Governor’s orders. “We have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic that people should follow the CDC and State guidelines. I’m going ask all Mainers to please follow the Governor’s instructions about wearing masks, travel, and gathering, so that you protect yourselves, your families and friends, and the whole community.”
Hospitalizations and deaths have increased dramatically in the past month, with 94 new hospitalizations in the past month, for a total of 566 hospitalizations since the pandemic began in Maine in March, and 165 total deaths, with 15 in November alone. As numbers of hospitalizations rise, so does the risk of running out of hospital beds for patients who get sick. Fourteen outbreak investigations were opened in Maine between November 14-16, including faith communities, schools, day cares, medical centers, and companies.
“The pot is starting to boil over and the bubbles are coming up everywhere,”said Dr. Shah, referring to the outbreaks. A wedding that took place in Millinocket on August 7 caused the state’s largest outbreak to date, and is responsible for at least 177 cases and seven deaths, according to a report published by the Maine CDC. There are currently 212 cases associated with schools in Maine.
“Community gatherings such as weddings, birthday parties, church events, and funerals have the potential to be (COVID-19) super-spreading events,” the authors wrote. Dr. Shah added holiday gatherings to the list of risky activities, emphasizing that indoor private social gatherings are very risky. “Holidays. We have got to make sure that Covid-19 does not haunt our holidays, and that is a possibility right now,” he said.
John Ochira, President of the South Sudanese Community of Maine, said, “The more disciplined we are about following safety precautions, the more likely we are to defeat the virus and enjoy freedom. I urge all community members to take the mask mandate seriously and wear a mask consistently outside the house. It is for our own benefit.”
Face coverings are required for everyone age 5 and older in public settings, excluding certain people with serious medical exemptions. This is true in schools and childcare settings. In addition, masks are recommended for children ages 2 to 4 unless deemed developmentally inappropriate.
“This deadly and dangerous virus is spreading all across our state,” said Governor Mills. “Protect your family. Protect a health care worker. Protect the elderly. Wear your face covering. Save lives. It is that simple.”
Effective November 4, indoor gatherings returned to a maximum of 50 people. The gathering limit on outdoor activities remains at 100 people under existing guidelines, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings. Occupancy limits for retail establishments remains at 5 people per 1,000 square feet of shopping space.
“Maine is experiencing widespread community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Dr. Nirav D. Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Wearing face coverings and staying at least six feet away from others when out in public are ways that every person in Maine can limit potential spread of the virus to help make their communities and homes safer.”
Dr. Shah and Governor Mills have both warned that indoor gatherings are dangerous, but community leaders report that the state’s move into Phase 4 of the re-entry plan has confused some people, who thought the re-opening move meant the pandemic had ended. However, far from decreasing, COVID-19 cases are increasing rapidly, and the virus can sicken anybody. Governor Mills calls the virus ‘the silent enemy among us.’
Black and brown people count for a disproportionately high percentage of cases both in Maine and nationwide. In Maine, as of November 16, 1,059 Black people have had COVID-19 out of a total of 9,117 people, however less than 2% of Maine’s population is Black. Frequently cited reasons for the dramatic disparity along racial lines include policies that help keep Black or African American Mainers – many of them immigrants – in front-line jobs, rather than working from home; using public transportation to get to work; living in crowded housing, which makes social distancing either very difficult, or impossible. Nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.1 times the rate of white people.
Individuals in Maine who think they could have COVID-19, or could have been exposed to COVID-19, can get a test using a Standing Order dated September 21, which is available on the Maine CDC website. The Standing Order covers molecular testing and antigen testing, not antibody testing, which has not been proven to be reliable.
According to Dr. Shah, Maine still has the possibility of slowing the spread of the virus through mask wearing and the avoidance of gatherings with people outside the household. “The way we go from here and the path we follow from here, is in the hands of all of us,” Dr. Shah said. He urged adherence to safety guidelines in the near term, especially now that the end is possibly coming into view with encouraging developments from vaccine scientists: “For me, what’s giving me that light at the end of the tunnel is postponing for just a couple of months…”