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Maine recommends masks in 'high' transmission indoor areas, regardless of vaccination status

Only Waldo County meets the U.S. CDC's definition of "substantial" or "high" transmission of coronavirus as of Wednesday afternoon.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills announced in a release Wednesday that Maine will follow the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated face covering guidance, which recommends that people wear face coverings in certain areas.

The new guidance recommends:

  • all people, regardless of vaccination status, wear face coverings in indoor, public settings in areas with “substantial” or “high” levels of community transmission; and
  • all teachers, staff, and students in K-12 schools wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status or community transmission level.

At the time of the state's press conference at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the U.S. CDC transmission map showed York and Piscataquis counties had “substantial” levels of community transmission, which means that individuals should wear face coverings in indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. But by 2:40 p.m., the U.S. CDC's county map was updated with new data, indicating York and Piscataquis counties now show moderate levels of transmission, while Waldo County was moved into the "substantial" designation.

Credit: U.S. CDC

Editor's Note: The comments made by Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah were before the updated U.S. CDC data was released. 

"What has changed is the recommendation for the 8,000 fully vaccinated individuals in Piscataquis County and the 122,000 fully vaccinated individuals in York County," Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said during a press conference Wednesday. "If you are one of those 130,000 people watching today, the best thing that you can do to continue keeping people safe is to throw on a mask when you're in an indoor public setting."

Shah said the risk of vaccinated people spreading the virus to others is low but it is not zero, which is why vaccinated people are included in the updated mask guidance.

"By masking up in indoor public settings -- in places where there's a lot of virus -- even though you're vaccinated, you reduce that risk of accidentally, inadvertently transmitting the virus to vulnerable people around you. A risk that, because of the delta variant, we fear may be growing," Shah said.

The CDC reports Maine’s other 14 counties currently have “moderate” levels of community transmission. Those counties are not subject to the first recommendation. 

The U.S. CDC determines level of community transmission based on the number of cases in the last 7 days per 100,000 people and the percentage of tests in the last 7 days that have a positive result.

These changes are recommendations, not requirements. Shah on Wednesday noted the possibility that some schools may not follow the recommendations.

"These are recommendations and there is the possibility that some schools may opt to go in a different direction, but what we've seen consistently over the last school year is that students, staff, teachers, and parents have done really hard things to keep Maine schools among the safest out there," Shah said. "Putting a mask on is another thing to help with that belt and suspenders approach to keep schools safe and in-person this year. Given the track record that Maine educators and parents have had, we think that they'll keep doing the right thing." 

Also on Wednesday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Education announced a plan to support vaccination of school staff and students, consisting of the following three parts:

  • Supporting schools in launching free vaccine clinics: Maine CDC plans to connect interested schools with Maine’s hospitals, doctors, public health nurses, and other vaccinators, using an online survey and application, to support vaccine clinics. While free vaccine is widely available in various settings across Maine, the Maine CDC said school-based clinics provide a convenient, accessible option for school community members.
  • Promoting COVID-19 vaccine education: On Thursday, the departments plan to host a webinar for school leaders, led by Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah, and will distribute letters for school administrators, parents / guardians, and school and community health care providers on COVID-19 vaccination. These letters will be translated in multiple languages and include information on the disease, the COVID-19 vaccine, and the nuts-and-bolts of how to get vaccinated, according to officials. Maine CDC will also launch youth-oriented educational messages via social media, according to officials.
  • Collecting and posting school vaccination rates: Maine DHHS plans to begin collecting school staff vaccination rates monthly starting on Sept. 1 and will publicly post the school rates mid-month. This will resemble the Maine Health Care Worker COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard, which DHHS launched in June and provides monthly reports on every hospital and long-term care facility. The reporting will include fully vaccinated staff at preK-12 public schools and charter schools, private schools, and career and technical schools, according to Maine DHHS. Maine DHHS also plans to begin posting vaccination rates of youth ages 19 and younger by school administrative unit every two weeks beginning in mid-August. While vaccination rates by age are already publicly available, connecting them more directly to school communities can help guide efforts to bring vaccine clinics to communities where the rates are low, according to officials.

Maine's state of civil emergency expired at the end of June.

The governor and Maine's health officials continue to strongly urge Maine people to get vaccinated as the best way to protect themselves from COVID-19.

“As a result of their willingness to roll up their sleeves, 72 percent of eligible Maine people have been fully vaccinated – one of the best rates in the country. This has helped us keep our rates of COVID low compared to the rest of the nation, but the Delta variant remains a threat that we want to keep at bay as much as possible,” Mills said in a statement Monday. “The most effective way to do that is to get vaccinated. We continue to strongly urge all people to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities by getting your shot. In the meantime, we recommend that Maine people follow the U.S. CDC’s updated public health recommendations.”

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.

COVID-19 vaccine remains widely available across the state. To find a vaccination location, go to www.maine.gov/covid19/vaccines/vaccination-sites or call the Community Vaccination Line at 1-888-445-4111.

More than 63 percent of Maine’s total population is fully vaccinated and 68 percent has received at least one dose, according to the U.S. CDC vaccination tracker. 77 percent of eligible Maine people (12 years and older) have received at least one dose and nearly 72 percent of eligible Maine people are fully vaccinated.

“Vaccination is our best shot to slow the spread of COVID-19, including variants that continue to cause serious illness and death,” Shah and Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in Wednesday's release. “We continue to strongly urge all Maine people to get their shot to protect themselves and keep people safe. As the U.S. CDC has noted, vaccination is our best route out of this pandemic and this new guidance serves as a reminder that we must continue to take the threat of this virus seriously.”

“The pandemic continues to create dynamic challenges for school communities across the nation, and we are extremely proud of the leadership and professionalism exhibited by Maine's administrators, school boards, and staff members as they work to keep their schools safe and open,” Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said. “Maine’s Department of Education remains committed to providing support and guidance as we navigate this continually evolving situation.”

Despite having the oldest median age population in the country, Maine, adjusted for population, ranks fourth lowest among states in both COVID-19 cases and deaths from COVID-19, according to the U.S. CDC.