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3 things to know from Maine's COVID briefing: omicron infections affecting schools, hospitals & testing

The Maine CDC and DHHS provided updates on COVID's spread in the state and explained why schools that enforce masks can suspend contact tracing.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Northern Light Health and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention provided COVID updates Wednesday to address the spread of the omicron variant across the state.

Omicron spread makes contact tracing less effective

The Maine CDC and Department of Education sent out new standard operating procedures Wednesday for schools overwhelmed with trying to contact trace the rapid spread of the omicron variant of COVID in kids.

Schools with universal masking requirements are now allowed to suspend contact tracing.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said superintendents told him contact tracing was becoming overwhelming due to how rapidly cases were popping up among kids.

"Trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train on a bicycle. The train is long gone from the station by the time you even get your helmet on," Shah said. "Those same omicron factors at the same time reduce the effectiveness of contact tracing in schools."

A survey from the Maine State Superintendent Association shows about 88 percent of schools have universal mask requirements.

Hospital workers COVID callouts rise

During Northern Light Health's media briefing on Wednesday, hospital leaders said employee absences due to COVID were at an all-time high.

The system's senior vice president, Paul Bolin, said 605 employees were currently out due to either testing positive, quarantining, or awaiting test results. He said 184 additional employees tested positive in the last week.

Bolin said five of the system's hospitals were now in "contingency status," a measure hospitals can take to bring back staff sooner after a COVID exposure issued by the Maine CDC. Hospitals can decide when they reach contingency, or worse, crisis status. He said their contingency status means the quarantine period will be five days, with a negative test if asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic with improving conditions. This is stricter than CDC guidance, requiring a negative test.

Crisis status allows hospitals to bring back employees who test positive for COVID with no quarantine period, so long as the employee has no symptoms or has improving symptoms.

Bolin said "crisis staffing" is a measure of last resort after all other actions are implemented.

"I think the guidance that we have been provided by the CDC is a framework for hospitals and health care providers to follow, but it does give them their own expertise and judgment to apply to their local organization," Bolin said.

MaineHealth said that nearly 950 staff members were out last week, and the situation has not significantly improved. A spokesperson said none of its hospitals have reached crisis staffing levels right now.

Testing reaches record-high volume with more options opening

Shah said the state performed 825 PCR tests for every 100,000 people in Maine over the last week, a record high.

On Wednesday, the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland started offering tests through Curative, the company that operates the Portland Jetport testing site.

Shah said Westbrook Public Safety and the Augusta armory are expanding how many tests those sites can perform each day.

Maine is purchasing 250,000 BiNax Now tests that it will send to Walgreens locations and health care sites, schools, and congregate settings like nursing homes and jails.

The state is hoping to announce more increased testing options soon, he said.

"I would urge folks to cast a wide net if they need testing, both looking for a PCR appointment but also looking to see if rapid antigen tests are available. I say that freely acknowledging that they are tough to come by," Shah said.

"We are hopeful that the Biden administration will be releasing some more tests for states. We have heard the rumors that there could be announcements in the coming days, so we look forward to that as well. Needless to say, it's part of our daily work: how do we expand testing options?" DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. 

Starting on Saturday, new federal rules go into effect that allow people to get up to eight over-the-counter rapid tests for free each month.

That means a family of four can get 32 tests each month.

Stores are still working out whether the tests will be free at checkout or if you will have to submit a claim to insurance for reimbursement.

The federal government is incentivizing stores to make tests free at checkout.

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