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COVID contact tracing no longer required in Maine schools with universal masking

Virus Outbreak Maine
Robert F. Bukaty
Students from Regional School Unit 5 wear COVID face coverings as they head home on a school bus, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Freeport, Maine. Under the new rules following Christmas break, students and staff will no longer be considered a "close contact" if they are exposed to someone with the virus in an outdoor setting or on a school bus, as masks are required on Maine school buses.

Maine schools that require all students and staff to wear face masks will no longer have to conduct contact tracing of COVID-19 cases under a policy change announced Wednesday.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the new reality of the pandemic was behind the decision to stop requiring schools to identify and contact people potentially exposed to an infected person. Shah said the omicron variant may be three time more contagious than delta, which was already more transmissible than earlier variants. And research suggests that infected people become contagious more quickly, often before symptoms emerge.

"In short, trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train on a bicycle,” Shah said during his weekly COVID briefing. “The train is long gone from the station by the time you even get your helmet on. The train accelerates far too quickly, it reaches much higher top speeds and it doesn't stop."

With the omicron variant now dominant throughout Maine, Shah said it is increasingly unlikely that school contact tracers could even reach a potentially exposed student before they become infectious. Contact tracing is also time consuming and labor intensive, and in schools the burden has largely been shouldered by nurses who are already consumed by COVID testing, advising, reporting and myriad other tasks.

The policy change comes as Maine is experiencing record-high case counts as well as hospitalizations. The number of children contracting the virus is also rising, although children are less likely to develop severe cases of the disease.

The Maine Department of Education has reported just shy of 5,000 cases in schools over the past 30 days. And the current surge has forced some schools to return to remote learning both to limit transmission and because of staff shortages tied to infections.

The new policy only applies to schools that require masks for all students, staff and visitors. Shah called it a "pragmatic approach to keeping kids in the classroom." He acknowledged, however, that schools without universal masking will still have to deal with the logistical challenge of identifying close contacts of COVID-positive people and then advising them to quarantine.

"That will help those schools that do not have masking in place at least mitigate some of the transmission that might be occurring because they do not have masking in place," Shah said.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education said the agency does not have an accurate breakdown of schools with “universal masking” versus those that do not. Collection of that data stopped during the fall and some schools have likely reinstituted masking requirements amid the latest case surge.

“It is the expectation of the Department of Education that all Maine schools will follow the very clear and proven mitigation strategies found in the US CDC COVID-19 Prevention Strategies in Schools, including universal mask wearing,” Kelli Deveaux wrote in an email. “Schools do not report their local policies, including masking policies or protocols. It is the responsibility of the local school board to set policies, and we do not have a list of those who are choosing to ignore the community health experts. We continue to urge communities to demand that their schools utilize the strategies that have been proven to reduce transmission of COVID-19, thereby keeping staff and students safer and in school.”

Leaders of the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Board Association issued statements Wednesday welcoming the policy change.

“On behalf of school and district leaders across Maine, we welcome today’s guidance, which provides some relief to school staff, especially our nurses, who have continued to exceed safety protocols with extensive and labor intensive contract tracing and notification efforts,” Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Director Eileen King said in a statement. “Schools with universal masking policies in place for all indoor school sponsored activities will be able to shift their time and attention to other strategies that ensure the physical and emotional health and safety of staff and students.”