AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Monday that starting this week, 17 call center specialists will join the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide notification and support for people newly testing positive for COVID-19. This is part of a comprehensive plan to adapt Maine’s response to best contain the spread of coronavirus in light of the surge in cases in the state.
The team from the DHHS Call Center, who currently answer questions about eligibility for health and human services programs, will be temporarily redeployed to conduct case notification for some people. Case notification involves reaching out to people whose test came back positive for COVID-19 at the State lab or other labs and who are not otherwise prioritized for investigation by Maine CDC. This call center team will provide basic information and answers on how to isolate and where to go for help as needed.
In light of the significant increase in COVID-19 cases, starting Monday, Dec. 7, Maine CDC is focusing case investigation and contact tracing efforts on people at greater risk of contracting or spreading the virus. All other cases will get a call from the DHHS Call Center.
Maine CDC will continue to conduct case investigations of the following groups:
- People age 18 and younger
- People age 65 and older
- People who are hospitalized
- People identified on the lab report as a minority
- People identified as having a disability
- People identified on the lab report as a health care worker or first responder
- People known to be living or working in congregate settings including:
- Health care facilities
- Nursing facilities
- Homeless shelters
- Group homes
- Correctional facilities
- People known to be associated with schools or child care facilities
This means if you test positive for COVID-19 but do not fall into one of these high-priority groups, you will not be assigned a "case investigator" to go through the contact tracing process; you will be responsible for identifying your own close contacts and contacting them yourself. But this new third option available now through Maine DHHS will give you a notification of your positive result and will offer support and guidance.
“These changes are necessary to best support residents affected by this contagious and potentially deadly disease,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. “While Maine continues to rank better than all states but Vermont and Hawaii on major public health metrics, this surge has strained the state’s response. We will continue to adapt to ensure those most at risk have the information and resources they need.”
“Amid widespread community transmission, Maine CDC has had to adjust case investigation and contact tracing protocols to assist those at the greatest risk for contracting COVID-19 or the highest risk of spreading it,” Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah added. “The Call Center staff join Maine National Guard members and newly hired and redeployed Maine CDC staff to complement the work our team has done since before the first case in Maine was identified.”
In the past week, the average daily number of cases of COVID-19 has risen from 168 to 291. Maine’s 7-day positivity rate has also risen from 3.96% to 4.72%.
Maine CDC currently has 135 people conducting case investigation and contract tracing. Over 30 new case investigators and 50 new contact tracers are in training and expected to become active in the next month. Some of these workers are redeployed temporarily from other parts of DHHS and State government or the National Guard. The Call Center has a total of 45 workers, with 17 redeploying this week and the remainder being trained to help as contact tracers or case notifiers as needed for the short-term as Maine CDC brings on new people. The Maine Department of Education has also coordinated with Maine CDC to deploy a cadre of nurses for school-specific contact tracing.
The need for extra support comes as Maine CDC faces a significant backlog of test results for the first time since the pandemic began due to the recent surge in cases. Maine CDC is receiving a high volume of positive test results from the State lab and other labs, leading to delays in the next step in the process of assigning positive results to case investigators.
In the coming days, the case count will significantly increase as 4,500 positive test results from November 30 to December 6 are reviewed to determine if they are new cases. Not all positive tests become a new case, as some are from people who test positive more than once and others are out-of-state residents whose results are reported to their state of residence.
Maine DHHS says the additional support announced Monday will help to alleviate this backlog and ensure that people diagnosed with COVID-19 have information about how to avoid spreading the disease to others and get any support they need to stay in isolation.
"These choices are incredibly difficult," Shah said during the coronavirus briefing on Monday. "But we're in a position where there are no easy options in front of us. We at the state will continue to do everything we can to continue the processes, bring more people on, to hire more, to continue staying on top of the virus as much as we can. But sadly, we're in a situation where just like at the emergency room, some difficult decisions have to be made."
With this redeployment of call center staff, DHHS continues to urge Maine people interested in applying for health and human services programs, including MaineCare, Food Supplement, and TANF, to visit MyMaineConnection, the online application portal.