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Maine Adopts Federal Guidance On Masking Indoors In COVID-19 Hot Spots, Launches Vaccination Plan For Schools

Janet Mills
Robert F. Bukaty
Gov. Janet Mills wears a face covering while walking through the halls of the State House, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

If you live in York or Piscataquis Counties, masks are back. The Mills administration announced Wednesday that it's embracing new federal guidance that recommends everyone - vaccinated or not- wear masks in areas of substantial and high transmission of COVID-19. The guidance also recommends universal masking in schools regardless of transmission or vaccination rates.

The driving factor behind the new guidance is a troubling variant of COVID-19: the Delta variant. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah says it behaves differently than previous strains.

"The Delta variant is more wily and more formidable. It's roughly twice as contagious as other strains of the COVID-19 virus," Shah says.

It's also the dominant strain in the U.S., accounting for 80% of cases. In Maine, it's been found in nearly half of samples tested, but Shah says its true prevalence is likely closer to the New England average, which is 68%. Unlike other strains of COVID-19 the Delta variant has, in some instances, been able to reproduce in individuals who are vaccinated and spread to others.

"That someone could be a child who's too young to be eligible for a vaccine, or an immuno-compromised person for whom the vaccine may not be fully effective," Shad says.

And that's why, Shah says, Maine supports the new U.S. CDC guidance. It recommends that everyone who lives in areas with substantial and high transmission wear masks, even if they're vaccinated. In Maine, that's York and Piscataquis Counties. Dr. David McDermott is senior physician executive at two hospitals in Piscataquis County: Northern Light Mayo and CA Dean.

"It pains me to see Piscataquis County singled out as one of two counties in the state of Maine with above normal or above expected levels of viral transmission," McDermott says.

But, McDermott says, he supports the new guidance that everyone wear masks. It is only a recommendation - not a mandate, and McDermott acknowledges that some people likely won't follow it.

"But even if 10% of people wear a mask, that 10% will be contributing to reducing the virus's ability to spread within our community," McDermott says.

At York Hospital, infectious disease specialist Dr. Gretchen Volpe, also supports the new recommendations. The pandemic isn't over, and she says to expect more loosening and tightening of safety measures.

"This is just the way it is. There's going to be fluctuations where people get more on high alert, then maybe they relax restrictions, and then they go back again because it's certainly not gone. It's just changing. Ever-changing," Volpe says.

The new recommendations come as Maine's seven day average for new cases continues to increase. As of Wednesday, it's 67. Earlier this month, it was 14. Hospitalizations are also on the rise, with 41 people currently receiving in-patient care. When Dr. Shah was asked during Wednesday's briefing why the mask recommendation isn't being applied statewide given those trends, he said the risk is not the same everywhere.

"There is a balance here. The balance is, giving people advice based on the risk in their area, and not making them feel that the vaccine was for naught," Shah said.

And for people who find different guidance for different counties confusing, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health of Human Services says there is one simple, statewide recommendation that people can follow, "Which is, get a vaccine. We know that the way out of this pandemic is vaccination."

To that end, Lambrew announced that the state is launching a new plan to boost vaccination in schools. It includes setting up free vaccine clinics, educating school staff and families, and publicly posting school vaccination rates. Rates among students will be posted by administrative unit each month, beginning in mid-August. For staff, rates will first be posted by school beginning in mid-September. The state already posts vaccination rates for hospitals and nursing facilities.

"Connecting this information on vaccination directly with school communities can help guide efforts on where to bring the vaccine and where to educate people when vaccine rates are low," Lambrew says.

It's also recommended under the new state and federal guidance that schools implement universal masking, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission levels.