State health officials reported 20 additional COVID-19 cases on Monday but no new deaths linked to the disease.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that 1,205 individuals in Maine have tested positive for the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. But that figure does not include an additional five cases, reported later Monday, at a Tyson Foods plant in Portland during the first batch of universal testing of employees.

Seventeen employees at the poultry processing facility have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the company to idle the plant while the workspace is sanitized and workers are tested.

“The facility overall is intending to test over 400 employees, so we do anticipate more results and there is a likelihood that there will be more positive results,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said during his daily coronavirus briefing. “We will have better numbers tomorrow.”

To date, 57 individuals have died in Maine after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the latest figures from the Maine CDC. More than half of those deaths have occurred at nursing homes and other long-term care communities, although Shah reported no new cases at such facilities on Monday.

There were 428 active cases in Maine as of Monday, which is calculated by subtracting the 57 deaths and 720 recovered individuals from the total cases. That is an increase of six from the 422 active cases reported on Sunday.

The number of active cases in Maine peaked at 446 on April 17. Public health experts agree that a decline in cases for at least two weeks is one of the most important criteria for determining whether it is safe to begin reopening the economy.

Thirty-seven people were hospitalized with the virus, up four from Sunday. Among those 37 individuals, 18 were being treated in intensive care units while 11 were connected to ventilators because of respiratory failure.

The uptick in cases comes three days after the Mills administration relaxed restrictions on some businesses as part of a gradual reopening of the state’s economy. Hair salons, pet groomers, hunting/fishing guides and car dealerships, among others, were allowed to resume operations as long as they committed to following safety guidelines to reduce the risk of transmission. Additionally, hospitals and other health care facilities were allowed to resume offering elective procedures.

Asked about the new cases in light of Maine reopening some segments of its economy, Shah that while numbers change from day to day, the overall trend suggests that the transmission rate is flattening in Maine. A key measure is reducing the per-person rate to the point that every positive person infects less than one other individual on average.

“Right now, what we’ve seen is a bit of a plateau,” Shah said. “It’s a high plateau, to be sure, on the order of 20 or 30 new cases and it is one that could go back up. But a plateau is at least evidence that measures that were taken two or three weeks ago to have folks stay inside have slowed that rate of exponential growth.”

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has been criticized by some Republican politicians as well as some business owners for taking an overly cautious approach to reopening Maine’s economy. Some protesters gathered outside of the State House again over the weekend to demand Mills lift additional restrictions, and a Bethel brew pub owner said he would reopen his doors to customers under a federal license despite having his state health and alcohol licenses temporarily revoked.

But the state continues to experience additional outbreaks as well as more sicknesses and deaths at long-term care facilities.

The Hope House homeless shelter in Bangor had 20 COVID-19 cases as of Monday, and the Maine CDC was working with the Wellness Center shelter in Lewiston after one person tested positive there. While that is not yet considered an outbreak, Shah said the Maine CDC could recommend universal testing after further investigation.

The Tyson Foods plant in Portland, meanwhile, is the largest outbreak at a business in Maine other than a long-term care or health care facility.

Tyson planned to idle the plant on Saturday, Sunday and Monday in order to sanitize it. Shah said Maine CDC has been working with Tyson managers with recommendations on cleaning procedures, testing logistics as well as proper engineering controls to reduce risks of transmission once the plant reopens.

Worth Sparkman, a spokesman for Tyson’s national office, said the company plans to stay closed until all employee test results are back. In the meantime, the company is taking steps such as installing partitions between workstations, issuing and requiring use of face covering, erecting tents for additional break areas, checking employees’ temperature and changing policies to encourage sick employees to stay home.

Tyson Foods workers were tested during the weekend for coronavirus, while the plant in Portland was idled. Photo courtesy Tyson Foods

“The health and safety of our team members is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously,” Sparkman said in a statement. “Over the weekend, we worked with a third-party medical contractor to test all team members who work at our Portland, Maine, facility and have suspended all operations until test results are available.

“While the plant is idle, we are performing a deep clean and sanitization of the facility and are continuing to work closely with the Maine CDC to ensure our efforts meet or exceed state and national guidelines.”

The Tyson plant, which was formerly known as Barber Foods, has a large population of laborers from the Portland area’s immigrant community. Shah acknowledged that makes the contact tracing process – which involves tracking down anyone who may have had close, personal contact with a positive person during the past 16 days – “additionally challenging.”

“So we have already taken the process of reaching out to the representatives of some of the communities that we know are represented by workers in those facilities, to start touching base with them,” Shah said.

Also in Portland, Hope Acts, a nonprofit that assists asylum seekers, said in an email to supporters Monday that two residents of Hope House, a transitional housing program the organization operates, had tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantining in their apartments, and that two others have been asked to quarantine as a precaution. The organization said it was following a plan to minimize transmission of the virus.

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been hit hardest in Maine, accounting for at least 32 of the 57 deaths reported so far.

Maine CDC provided the following update on outbreaks at long-term care facilities:

• Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation – 76 cases

• Edgewood Rehabilitation in Farmington – 14 cases

• Falmouth By the Sea – 44 cases

• Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough – 55 cases

• Tall Pines in Belfast – 43 cases

• The Cedars in Portland – 15

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to begin shipping 14 days of surgical masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to the state’s 90 licensed long-term care facilities, Shah said.

Maine had a total of 330 critical care beds in its hospitals Monday, of which 141 were available, and a total of 319 ventilators, of which 296 were available. In addition, there were 395 alternative ventilators available.

For the first time on Monday, the Maine CDC began breaking out confirmed and probable cases. Of the 1,205 total cases, 69 were listed as “probable.”

Confirmed cases are individuals who have tested positive using a specific type of test – with swab samples collected from the nasal cavity or throat – that looks for the genetic materials of COVID-19. Probable cases are individuals whose blood tested positive for specific types of proteins or antibodies and who either had contact with a confirmed case or have symptoms associated with COVID-19.

Overall, however, Maine has among the lowest per capita infection rates in the country and health officials have said the trend lines appear to be headed in the right direction due, in part, to physical distancing.

But some critics contend Mills’ conservative approach is causing undue additional harm to businesses that could follow federal health guidelines to operate safely.

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