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Maine Expands Access To COVID-19 Tests As Another Mainer Dies And 26 New Cases Are Diagnosed

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Gov. Janet Mills and Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah at a news conference at the State House, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

As Maine restaurants began to reopen Monday — with a lot of caveats — Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced that state is dropping its system of prioritizing tests for COVID-19, and will now allow health care providers to order testing for anyone suspected of having the disease.At a briefing Monday in Augusta, Mills said the change is due to state's recent agreement with Westbrook laboratory IDEXX that will triple Maine's testing capacity.

The increased capacity means that health care providers in Maine can now order tests for anyone they suspect of having COVID-19. It’s a big step forward, says state Center for Disease Control director Dr. Nirav Shah.

“This game-changing news will allow Maine to conduct testing in a much more widespread fashion,” he says.

Before, Maine used a priority system that only tested individuals who were at highest risk for COVID-19. That included people with symptoms who also fell into certain categories, including health care workers, hospital patients, residents in congregate care settings and individuals with underlying health conditions.

Mills says that testing criteria was necessary because of limited supplies.

“For a lot of people in Maine, that tiered system, even though it was necessary, for Maine and most other states, it meant that even if you were symptomatic, you might not be able to get a test,” she says.

But now, Mills says anyone with symptoms can get a test — and even some who don’t, such as spouses or others in close contact with someone with COVID-19. The state was able to boost its capacity after partnering with IDEXX Laboratories, which received federal emergency authorization for a new COVID-19 test earlier this month.

Maine has purchased enough tests to push the state lab’s capacity to run up to 7,000 tests per week for the foreseeable future. Shah CDC says that number puts Maine into the first wave of states to eliminate a priority system.

“It will also equip us to continue to working with congregate care settings after they’ve developed outbreaks, as well as perhaps even before they’ve even gotten to that stage, depending on the circumstances at the facility,” he says.

Even with the increased capacity, Mills says the state is working to further increase testing. When Dr. Shah was asked how many more tests the state needs, he said there’s another number that’s more important.

“It’s less about the total number of tests, but what percentage of those test are positive,” he says.

That’s called the positivity rate, and Shah says his goal is for Maine to reach 2% positive out of all the tests that are performed. For several weeks, Shah says, the state’s positivity rate has hovered around 5%. Lowering that number, he says, will be more meaningful than meeting testing capacity benchmarks.

Mills urged Mainers to continue to observe social distancing and other measures aimed at preventing spread of the virus, but acknowledged that it won't be easy for businesses to accommodate the requirements.

"It's going to be very, very challenging and we know that," Mills said, adding later, "We're not going to be able to go back to the way things were, not anytime soon."

Mills' comments followed the latest assessment on the spread of COVID-19 in the state by Shah, who said another Maine resident — a woman in her 80s from Cumberland County — has died, bringing the overall death toll to 71. 

Shah said the number of coronavirus cases grew overnight to 1,713, 26 more than Sunday. Fifteen of those cases were in Cumberland County.

Among them are a number of cases at so-called congregate care facilities, including three at Bluestar Homecare, an undisclosed number at Bristol Seafood, where production has been paused, five cases at the Clover facility, and 19 Cianbro employees "across many states." 

Shah said the CDC is investigating those cases.

Over the course of the pandemic, he said, that 223 people have been hospitalized and 1,053 have recovered from the illness. Forty-two people remain in the hospital, 16 of them in intensive care. Of those, 10 are on ventilators.

Maine Public digital producer Barbara Cariddi contributed to this report.

Updated at 5:40 p.m. May 18, 2020.