AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's COVID briefing on Wednesday covered a variety of topics, including vaccines for kids ages five to 11, school outbreaks, and pooled testing.
COVID cases in schools are peaking across Maine, forcing district staff to make tough choices on how to go forward with what's left of their fall semesters.
In the last two weeks, 1,483 kids ages 12 and younger have tested positive for the virus in Maine. That makes up more than 20% (or one in 5) of all the new cases in Maine in the last two weeks, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah.
Lewiston Middle School is one of those schools where cases are causing problems. The school's superintendent said Wednesday morning on Twitter that the middle school is going to remote learning Friday because "the district simply does not have enough staff needed to stay open."
He said that is due to an increase in kids and staff testing positive for the virus and having to isolate or quarantine.
Winthrop schools are also dealing with a rise in cases. The school committee voted to take the entire week of Thanksgiving off from classes and keep staff and students out of buildings in an attempt to let case numbers subside. They plan to tack on those missed days to the end of the year.
"We do masking. We do distancing. We have assigned seats. Everything that's been suggested as a recommendation by the CDC we're doing, and this virus is spreading anyways," said Theresa Fitzgerald of the Winthrop Education Association.
Shah said it takes all of those layers and more to keep kids and teachers in the classroom.
The state also wants schools and parents to sign on for pooled testing. Kids and staff who are fully vaccinated for COVID and wear masks in school do not have to quarantine if they are a close contact of someone who tests positive for the virus.
In the one week since kids ages 5- 11 became eligible to get the shot, 3,136 of those children have gotten it, according to state data.
Shah and Maine DHHS commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said school leaders, teachers, staff, and parents need to take action.
"We think the tools are there to protect in-person learning, but it does require that people take advantage of these options. It does require individual action, as well as action by school leadership," Lambrew said.
"The best way to prevent that happening is to make sure vaccination rates are as high as possible. Things like vaccination, pooled testing, are things to keep at least the children in the classroom," Shah said. "The more staff that are vaccinated just statistically lessens the likelihood that schools will have to close because so many staff will be out because they got COVID."
Shah said the state has more than 150 school-based clinics scheduled for next week.
"Until we have the highest possible vaccination rate that any of us can imagine, the best thing we can do is get ourselves and families vaccinated," Shah said.
Pockets of unvaccinated undermine Maine's high vaccination rate
The Maine CDC expects cases will keep going up for at least the next six weeks unless more unvaccinated people decide to get the shot.
Shah said one of the biggest problems in our state right now is pockets of unvaccinated people. Some counties, such as Cumberland, have very high rates, above 75 or even 80%, while other, more rural counties such as Somerset or Androscoggin have fewer than two-thirds of people vaccinated.
Shah says those more rural areas did not see high levels of COVID before.
Now, with this combination of the highly contagious delta variant and pockets of unvaccinated people, the virus is spreading rapidly causing high numbers of people in the hospital.
Hospitals across Maine reported 225 cases Wednesday.