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CDC changes masks guidelines, urges face coverings indoors in York and Piscataquis counties

Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday evening that she has directed Maine DHHS and Maine CDC to review the updated guidance on masks

BANGOR, Maine — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging. 

Gov. Janet Mills said in a release Tuesday that she has directed the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine CDC to review the U.S. CDC's updated mask guidance, which she expects to be completed Wednesday. 

After the review, she said her administration will announce what changes, if any, will be made to the public health recommendations in Maine.

"In the meantime, we continue to strongly urge all Maine people to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated. It is the best and most effective way to protect your health and that of your family, friends, and communities," Mills said in a statement.

The U.S. CDC said to look at its county-by-county online data tracker to see where COVID-19 is surging. In the color-coded map, orange reflects substantial community transmission and red indicates high transmission. 

Substantial transmission means there have been 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 people over a 7-day period, and high transmission means an area has seen more than 100 cases per 100,000 over a 7-day period, U.S. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky explained.

That map shows York and Piscataquis counties having substantial transmission, while the rest of the state is classified as being moderate.

Credit: U.S. CDC

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah joined in on a Bangor City Council meeting Monday night to offer his thoughts on where the state stands in respect to COVID-19. He said if he had been speaking to city councilors a few weeks ago, he'd have a brighter outlook.

One of the main topics of discussion was the possibility of a change in Maine's indoor masking guidelines. 

While Shah didn't know on Monday exactly what the U.S. CDC would announce Tuesday, he did say that he has prepared his staff for a return to wearing masks in indoor settings.

“I don’t know exactly what direction the U.S. CDC will go, but similar to the discussion around schools, what I’ve told my staff is that we probably need to be prepared even for fully vaccinated folks to, for the time being, go back to wearing masks in indoor settings,” Shah said.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Shah addressed the latest guidance from the U.S. CDC, and what it means for Maine in terms of masking and going back to school this fall. He emphasized that getting vaccinated "remains the best tool we have to keep you and your family safe from COVID-19, to keep you out of the hospital, and to keep you from dying."

As of Monday, Shah said the delta variant accounts for about 47% of the new cases in the state. According to a weekly genome sequencing summary released on July 23, there are 29 confirmed cases of the delta variant in Maine.

The delta variant is a mutated form of the coronavirus that spreads more easily than other versions. It was first detected in India but now has been identified around the world.

Shah recommended four things Mainers can do to stop the spread of the delta variant:

  1. If you're not vaccinated, get it done. 
  2. If you're not feeling well, get tested--whether you're vaccinated or not. 
  3. If you're in a public, indoor space, consider masking up, especially in a higher transmission county (right now, York and Piscataquis).
  4. If you're in a school, everyone--teachers, staff, students, and visitors--should mask up, regardless of vaccination.

Shah said there are 33 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine as of Monday morning. On Friday there were 25 people in the hospital, so that number grew by eight over the weekend, according to Shah.

The Maine CDC has also seen additional COVID-19 patients being placed on ventilators, as well as an uptick in deaths, according to Shah.

“We’re seeing transmission of the more contagious delta variant, particularly in parts of the state where there are more unvaccinated individuals," he said. "And a fraction of those folks are ending up in the hospital; and a fraction of those folks are ending up on a ventilator; and a fraction of those folks, sadly, are passing away.”

Shah said this is a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future

“That foreseeable future could be weeks, but some epidemiologists whom I've spoken with recently have feared that it could go on for even longer periods of time into the fall," he said. "It’s too early to tell right now.”

Shah told Bangor city councilors they should be prepared for the possibility that even vaccinated children may be wearing masks in schools in the fall. 

“Even though we are favorably positioned relative to other states, there’s still going to be challenges ahead of us," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.