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Politics

Pulse Newsletter: State Urges Some Maine Counties With Higher COVID-19 Transmission To Mask Up

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

In this week’s newsletter: New recommendations for masks in Maine; Arise USA brings right wing politics to Belfast; First Charter Commission meeting in Portland.

If you live in Waldo County, you may want to get your masks back out of the drawer. The Mills administration announced Wednesday that it's embracing new federal guidance recommending that everyone - vaccinated or not- wear masks in areas with substantial and high transmission rates 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 Delta variant of COVID-19, which Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah says 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.

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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's why the U.S. CDC now recommends that everyone wear masks in areas of substantial and high transmission.

In Maine, that guidance currently applies to Waldo County. But earlier in the week when the changes were first announced, Piscataquis and York counties were listed on a U.S. CDC map as having substantial transmission. Dr. David McDermott, a senior physician executive at two Piscataquis County hospitals, Northern Light Mayo and CA Dean, says he supports the new guidance, even though it is only a recommendation, not a mandate.

"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 says she still wore a mask to the grocery store even before the updated guidance, "Because maybe today the rates are low, but tomorrow they may not be." Volpe says to expect more loosening and tightening of safety measures until the pandemic peters out.

"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.

Republican State Senator Paul Davis, who represents parts of Piscataquis County, says masks should be a personal choice. The Maine GOP didn't respond to a request for comment, but the new guidance was quickly embraced as political fodder for former Maine Governor Paul LePage, who is challenging Mills next year. On his Facebook page, LePage posted in all caps, "WE NEED TO FOLLOW THE SCIENCE AND USE COMMON SENSE WHEN IT COMES TO COVID-19 POLICY ON SCHOOLS, MASKS AND VACCINES: NOT RELY ON POLITICALLY DRIVEN DECISION MAKING." In lower case, LePage continued, "The latest decisions from the Governor and Washington seem to lean more on politics than science."

Also Wednesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services announced 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," Education Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew says.

The Maine School Management Association says it hasn't heard any concerns from superintendents or school boards about publishing vaccinations rates. Executive Director Steve Bailey says the MSMA strongly supports vaccinations and the recommendation for universal masking.

"I think everybody is taking stock of the new information that seems to be changing every 24, 48, or 72 hours with regard to the impact of the Delta variant of the virus, and I think there's increased concern about what level of impact it would have on the unvaccinated, including those students in schools who are unvaccinated," Bailey says.

Bailey says schools are ready to pivot to ensure safety, and those with students not old enough to be eligible for the vaccine were already anticipating face coverings would be needed this fall.

Pandemic Response, Voting Machines, and Satanic Pedophilia

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Murray Carpenter
Former CIA agent Robert David Steele, a speaker at the July 27 Arise USA rally in Belfast, sounded themes of citizen empowerment, while criticizing government's response to the pandemic, voting machines, and satanic pedophilia.

A rally of supporters of the national group Arise USA, which is critical of COVID-19 restrictions and alleges 2020 election fraud, drew a crowd to Belfast's Crosby Center Tuesday evening, as well as protesters on the street outside.

Former CIA agent Robert David Steele, a featured speaker at the rally, sounded themes of citizen empowerment, while criticizing government's response to the pandemic, voting machines, and satanic pedophilia.

He emphasized the importance of education, and encouraged gun-packing mothers to show up at school board meetings, while taking a jab at the protesters outside the venue, who he said were funded by a nonprofit that fights antisemitism, although they were not.

Republican state representative Heidi Sampson spoke in support of a forensic audit of Maine elections. She also used the moment to announce the launch of the "Freedom Network', which she said was designed to connect people across Maine for the sake of liberty and freedom. Other speakers included Dr. Christiane Northrup of Yarmouth, whose vaccination disinformation recently landed her on a Disinformation Dozen list.

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Murray Carpenter
Kevin Jenkins, a speaker at the Arise USA rally (standing in the middle, dressed in black) walked over to engage with the protesters, while Belfast police patrolled the July 27 event.

Common themes throughout the event included a distrust of elected officials and government, and skepticism of the severity of the covid pandemic and of vaccines.

A key figure in the Arise USA movement, former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, was scheduled as a keynote speaker, but did not attend. Mack is the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which believes that in their own county jurisdictions, the authority of sheriffs supersedes that of other law enforcement, including federal agents.

Protestors outside held signs that read "No Fascism," and raised concerns about Steele's antisemitism. Among those who turned out was Moriah Helms, of Monroe, who says groups like Arise USA stoke conspiracy theories that add to divisions that have been growing in Waldo County, and beyond.

A protest organizer, who lives nearby and chose to be identified only as J, was dismayed that such a divisive event was held at the former high school now known as the Crosby Center.

Portland Charter Commission Meets For First Time

Portland's recently-formed Charter Commission held its first meeting Wednesday evening, to hear public comment on issues of governance to be considered over the next year. The 12-person commission heard virtually from more than 130 residents who proposed changes in the way city government is structured. A number of them testified in favor of eliminating the city manager position, and shifting more power to the mayor.

Others called for improved collaboration between the School Board and the City Council.

One resident recommended that the city eliminate executive positions entirely.

Commission Chair Michael Kebede says he expects the commission will hold more sessions designed to gather public input.

The commission will make recommendations for the city charter next spring, which voters will consider later in November.

The next commission meeting is scheduled for August 11 at 6:00 p.m.

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