AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's public health leaders acknowledged encouraging trends as they updated the state on the COVID-19 pandemic response on Wednesday.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew announced more free COVID-19 tests, encouraging wastewater test results, and a plan to re-evaluate the school mask recommendation after February school vacation.
NEW LOOK AT SCHOOL MASK RECOMMENDATION
Shah said public health officials will re-evaluate the state's recommendation that schools require everyone to wear masks, but they will not make a decision until after February school vacation week.
Maine does not have a statewide requirement that everyone in schools wear masks. Instead, the state has left it up to districts to decide their own policies.
Shah said the recent trends in transmission and the number of kids testing positive are encouraging. He said officials will monitor several key metrics: hospitalizations, positivity rates, and levels of COVID in wastewater.
"That's why we're keeping an eye out for how things evolve after next week, as well as looking for continued stability," he said. "Where we are right now is encouraging. It's favorable. We want to see those trends continue."
Shah said it may take a week or two after kids come back from the break before the CDC announces a decision, in part to see if there is any surge following the vacation week.
The state is also allowing schools without mask mandates to stop contact tracing. Shah said that is because the omicron variant is spreading too fast for contact tracing to be effective.
ENCOURAGING TRENDS IN WASTEWATER TESTING
Shah said we now have enough data to see the trends in COVID levels in wastewater. The data is all publicly available on the state CDC website.
He said this information is helpful because it can show whether COVID in communities is increasing or decreasing, without relying on people to go get tested.
"The results are quite encouraging, almost, really significant declines week-on-week," he said. "It's good stuff and it helps inform the discussion we've been having and talking about around masking."
MORE FREE COVID-19 TESTS
All Mainers can now get more free COVID-19 tests through a state pilot program.
In late January, the Mills administration announced 125,000 free COVID-19 tests for people in ZIP codes where they might struggle to get access to testing.
Lambrew said Wednesday that 76,680 test kits have been sent out, and she announced that all Mainers are now eligible to receive the tests.
You can order them online and they are completely free. Each household can get one test kit which contains five tests. Anyone age two and older can use the tests.
Lambrew said the goal is to get the tests to families in time for them to test students before they return to school after February vacation.
"With school vacation coming up we do know that if past is prologue, people are traveling, people might be gathering, and there's an elevated risk. So it is just the next phase of this pilot, which, if it is successful, Maine will figure out if it continues in the future," she said.
You can also order free COVID-19 tests through the federal government.