By Kathreen Harrison

As of 11:00 a.m. Monday morning, Maine had recorded 29 new cases of COVID-19 in the previous 24-hour period – the smallest increase in a single day since the three days from April 1- 3, when 41, 32, and 56 new cases were recorded in each consecutive 24-hour period.

There have now been 499 confirmed cases of the virus in Maine, with 158 people who have fully recovered, and 10 individuals who have died. 62% of reported cases have been in individuals over the age of 50. The first case was reported in Maine on March 12, which means Maine has seen an increase of 498 cases in 24 days.

While some might point to the relatively small increase between Sunday and Monday as a sign of a slight flattening of the infection curve, thereby giving hope that social distancing measures are controlling the virus in Maine, Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the State of Maine’s Center for Disease Control, cautioned that the numbers could be a statistical anomaly. He warned against misinterpreting the numbers and concluding that the virus is not a risk in Maine. “That would be a big mistake. We are only seeing a fraction of the cases out there,” he explained.

An article in the New York Times on April 3, co-authored by James Glanz, Matthew Bloch, and Anjali Singhvi, reported on a new study out of the University of Texas that indicates all counties in Maine, with the exception of Piscataquis, Washington, and Aroostook counties, stand between a 70% – 98% chance of already being in the midst of a “sustained, undetected, outbreak.”

Dr. Shah therefore urged adhering closely to Governor Mill’s “Stay Healthy at Home” Executive Order, which experts concur remains Maine’s best chance at minimizing the toll of the virus. A vaccine is not expected to be ready for public use for 12-18 months, although scientists around the world are rushing to create one. Dr. Shah encourages thinking of social – or ‘physical’ distancing, which is his preferred term – as the only substitute we have for a vaccine at the moment.

Because the incubation period for the virus can be as long as 14 days, because there is very limited testing available, and because many infected people never display symptoms, there is no way to know how many people in Maine are currently infected. It will take another two weeks before we know how infections from two weeks ago play out – how many people will show only mild – or no – symptoms, how many will become severely ill before recovering, and how many will die. We can’t miraculously erase the infections that occurred two weeks ago, but we can control how many people become infected going forward. Our way to do that is by physical distancing.

Dr. Shah has previously explained that there is no way to predict when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, or when Maine will hit the peak of infections. Predicting the course of Covid-19 is like “following a path through the woods where you don’t know where it will end. Not until you reach the destination do you know where it ends,” he said on March 25 in his daily briefing.

Dr. Dora Mills, Chief Health Improvement Officer for Maine Health, and long-time former Director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control, wrote today about the importance of social distancing when faced with a virus that ‘spreads through a non-immune population exponentially, with an infected person typically infecting three others, and those three others infecting three more, etc.’

She wrote,Social distancing strategies can likewise have an exponential impact in the opposite direction, reducing transmission from an average of three other people per infected person to less than one (that’s the goal), and breaking the exponential chain of transmission. But one break in social distancing can cause the disease to rise exponentially again. In other words, social distancing is also a social contract that counts on everyone participating to the extent possible. It only takes one asymptomatic person spreading the disease for it to take off again.”

On April 3, Dr. Shah noted that data from the Department of Transportation showed reductions in traffic of 67%, indicating that Mainers are staying home. Cellphone data also indicates that Mainers are following the Governor’s orders. Dr. Shah said that it would take 16 days to know whether physical distancing was working to flatten the curve.

On April 2, Dr. Shah warned that in the midst of an outbreak such as this, “Fear, misinformation, and mistruths can spread far more quickly than the virus itself.” He warned against believing rumors of remedies for the virus, saying there is no cure at this point, so the only thing to do is avoid contracting it in the first place by washing hands thoroughly, keeping hands away from the face, and only going out into public to perform essential services or on essential business, such as finding food or medicine.

“The best way to be informed is to consult trusted sources of information, such as the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the U.S. CDC. Consulting with experts is the best way to make sure you are armed with the best, most complete information. He held out the hope that if Mainers continue to follow the Governor’s orders, we have a real chance to prevent the surge in case numbers seen in cities like New York, and that would enable our health care system to keep up with cases and treat those who become ill.

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