Traci Hodges, left, Tracy Lambert and David Daigle clean the concessions counter at Smitty’s Cinemas in Windham in preparation for reopening. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Health officials reported 20 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday but no additional deaths, as Maine continues to be spared from the kind of increases other states are enduring.

But those numbers do not include an outbreak of 11 cases at the American Roots clothing manufacturing facility in Westbrook, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said.

Shah said universal testing of staff and contact tracing are already well underway at American Roots to determine whether employees contracted the virus at their workplace or somewhere else.

“That’s the single most important question in any workplace outbreak,” he said, praising leadership at American Roots for moving forward with testing all employees even before the CDC began its outbreak investigation and for closing the facility three times already for thorough cleaning.

Ben Waxman, who co-owns the company with his wife, Whitney, said Thursday that he’s had better days but is proud of how his workers have responded. The facility was closed all day Thursday for cleaning but plans to reopen Friday. Everyone who has tested positive or shown symptoms will stay home for at least two weeks.

Waxman, whose company was forced to close in March when the pandemic hit, pivoted to producing personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields and has even hired more staff. He said the outbreak is a reminder that the risk is great, even in a state like Maine and even at businesses like his that have put strict safety measures in place.

“The safety and well-being of workers is our number one priority,” he said. “With that said, every single one of us is vulnerable to this virus.”

How well Maine manages outbreaks like this is crucial to keeping the virus from spreading.

Shah, as he has for the last several weeks, commended Maine people for doing their part to keep case numbers low but warned of metaphorical “massive forest fires burning in other parts of the country,” that could find their way to Maine.

“The people of Maine, all of us, have done an exemplary job keeping a lid on COVID-19, but that could change if we let up and let down our guard,” he said.

Over the last 10 days, the average daily number of new cases has been 18, down from an average of 32 over the previous 10-day period. Hospitalizations have been trending downward, as well – just 13 people were hospitalized as of Thursday. No additional deaths were reported, which means the state’s total since the pandemic hit remains at 114.

Since mid-March, Maine has tracked 3,598 confirmed or probable cases. The number of active cases now stands at 390, up slightly from Wednesday. As has been the case from the start, the overwhelming majority of cases in Maine (83 percent) have been in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties.

The state has kept its numbers low even as more people are being tested, which is encouraging. This week, Gov. Janet Mills said Maine would soon have 18 “swab-and-send” testing sites up and running across the state to further expand capacity. So far, Maine has conducted more than 130,000 COVID-19 tests, which is equivalent to about 10 percent of the state’s population.

Furthermore, Maine’s seven-day average positivity rate is just 1 percent, a sign that the state is testing a wide swath of people. Other states are seeing positivity rates in the 20 percent range.

Shah said the bulk of credit should go to Maine people “for taking science seriously,” but he also pointed to policy decisions like keeping bars closed and requiring most out-of-state visitors to quarantine or provide proof of a negative test.

The latest outbreak at American Roots, which since April has been manufacturing personal protective equipment to help with the pandemic, is a chance for the state to test its contact tracing apparatus, Shah said.

“We’re getting better every day,” he said. “The way in which we approach outbreaks today is better than it was a couple months ago. We’re learning from every outbreak.”

Contact tracing involves reaching out to every positive case and determining whom they have come into contact with, then contacting those people and asking them to isolate. The Maine CDC has more than doubled its contact tracing staff and is adding more employees regularly, including those who speak different languages. American Roots employs more than 100 people, Waxman said, many of them new Mainers. He said they all know how important contact tracing is to limiting the spread further.

Maine’s low case numbers are a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy national picture. Cases have spiked in a majority of states over the last couple weeks and some are seeing record numbers. Florida, for instance, recorded 10,181 new cases on Wednesday alone, nearly three times Maine’s total since the pandemic began.

Some states have reinstated restrictions that had been lifted in an effort to reopen the economy and calls for requiring face coverings in public settings are growing louder. Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, said by next week it will mandate that all customers wear masks when entering a store and more state leaders have issued orders.

But some Republican leaders are still resisting. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said this week that he’s banning the state’s cities and counties from ordering people to wear masks in public places, even as case numbers there have surged.

Shah on Thursday also addressed a recent Trump administration decision that asks hospital to report COVID-19 data directly to the federal government and not to state health agencies like the Maine CDC. He said the decision was made hastily and without the input of states but said his agency will still receive data from hospitals and the shift will not change his commitment to “full transparency.”

In addition, Shah said, “we’re exploring how to re-establish the same reporting system that was previously in place. That process is already underway.”

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