Visitors thronged to the pier in Old Orchard Beach on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and one additional death.

In other virus developments, Maine’s use of an automated system to help people exposed to the virus report their symptoms was highlighted in a study Monday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The study concluded that automated systems can be highly effective for such tracking.

Maine has the second-lowest positivity rate for COVID-19 in the country – Vermont has the lowest – based on the latest data from the Maine CDC. Maine’s seven-day average was 1.6 cases per 100,000 people, compared to more than 30 cases per 100,000 in hard-hit states like Florida, Mississippi and Alabama.

Overall, 3,970 Mainers have fallen ill with COVID-19, and 124 have died. The death recorded Monday was a man in his 50s from Androscoggin County, the Maine CDC said. The number of people listed as recovered rose to 3,396.

About 10 percent of Maine’s COVID-19 cases from May 14 through July 10 were identified using the automatic contact tracing system called Sara Alert, according to the Maine-based study published Monday by the U.S. CDC.

Anna Krueger, a Maine CDC epidemiologist who helped conduct the study, said she believes it is the first research published in the United States about automated contact tracing.

Scientists from the Maine CDC, with assistance from the federal CDC, studied the effectiveness of the automated contact tracing system. Contact tracing involves identifying close contacts of those who have tested positive for COVID-19, monitors their symptoms and isolates them when necessary. If done correctly, contact tracing is a key component in halting transmission of the virus.

Exposed Maine residents who were enrolled in the contact tracing program overwhelmingly chose the automated component – only 4 percent chose to be monitored by a person. Those who chose Sara Alert automatically received daily symptom questionnaires via email, text message or other electronic means until their quarantine was completed. Epidemiologic investigations were conducted for enrollees who reported symptoms or tested positive, according to the study.

During the study period, 1,622 people were enrolled in Sara Alert and 190 – nearly 12 percent – were diagnosed with COVID-19. Overall during that time period, 1,869 Mainers were diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Maine CDC, so Sara Alert tracked about 10 percent of all Maine cases from May 14 to July 10.

Many states use some form of automated contact tracing, and several use the Sara Alert system, including Arizona, Idaho and Arkansas. The Sara Alert system is free to use for state and local health departments and was developed for COVID-19.

Krueger said having automated symptom trackers – which are available in several languages – can help free Maine CDC staff for other pandemic control programs and makes it possible to monitor symptoms daily.

“If we can identify someone who is COVID-19 positive sooner, and make sure they are given the appropriate recommendations to isolate, it will prevent them from spreading it to other people,” Krueger said.

Maine’s low but steady case counts come as schools grapple with how to reopen in the fall, many of them in less than a month.

The Mills administration last week listed all 16 counties as “green,” which means they can reopen for in-person instruction if safety measures are in place. But many districts, especially in harder-hit Cumberland and York counties, are considering a hybrid reopening plan, with students learning from home part of the week and attending in person the rest.

Superintendents in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick have already released hybrid reopening plans.

School districts are also still considering how to handle extra-curricular activities, such as sports. The Maine Principals’ Association announced a delayed and shortened fall sports season, but many uncertainties remain.

Still, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said Maine and Vermont are the two best-positioned states in the nation to reopen schools for in-person classes.

Jha said he recommends many layers of safety protocols, such as masks and testing teachers, staff and even potentially students.

“We get one shot (this year) at opening schools,” said Jha, in a Monday conference call with reporters. “If we mess that up and there’s a large outbreak, you are going to completely destroy the ability of that school to open up again.’

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