A passenger on a bus wears a mask and appears to be apart from other riders as the bus makes its way down Congress Street in Portland on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine’s top public health official warned Friday that “continued sustained ferocious levels of community transmission” of COVID-19 have forced the state to consider changes to the way it investigates cases.

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said his team will evaluate possible changes over the weekend, and he would make an announcement Monday.

“For now, I wanted Maine people to hear from me directly about the situation we’re in and the difficult choices we’re facing,” he said during a media briefing.

Although Shah said no decisions have been made, he hinted that the state is considering scaling back case investigation and contact tracing to focus on the most vulnerable populations, which is in line with what some states already have done.

The CDC reported 290 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and four additional deaths, just one day after setting a record with 346 cases. Another grim record was set this week, when 20 new COVID-19 deaths were reported Tuesday.

Hospitalizations set a record Friday as well – 164 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across Maine, which is 20 more than one day earlier, with 45 in critical care and 17 on ventilators. This time last month, 36 people were in the hospital with COVID-19.

Shah said the state opened investigations into 14 new outbreaks just on Thursday and Friday, and said there is some early suggestion that the recent spike in cases over the last few days is tied to gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Things were already acute before and now are becoming more so,” he said. “I fear that this may sadly be our new normal, and even worse, I expect it to get worse, perhaps even far worse.”

Because of the recent trends, Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that she is extending the state’s curfew of 9 p.m. for restaurants and other businesses through Jan. 3. It had been set to expire on Sunday.

“It is too early to know the impact of the Thanksgiving holiday on the spread of COVID-19 in Maine, but with hundreds of people getting sick all across the state, and many more dying and so many receiving critical care in our overburdened hospitals, we cannot afford to let down our guard,” Mills said in a statement.

“This targeted step aims to limit evening gatherings in public settings where we know folks are more likely to let their guard down and expose themselves and others to this deadly virus. At the same time, this action allows businesses to stay open for the majority of their operating hours, as long as they comply with basic public health and safety measures.”

The curfew applies to all businesses that provide seated food and drink service as well as indoor amusement venues, movie theaters, performing arts venues and casinos.

Steve Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, which represents the restaurant industry, said the extension was not a surprise given the spike.

“We remain skeptical of the impact that a 9 p.m. curfew has on reducing these numbers, as most cases seem to be originating in private gatherings,” he said. “To my knowledge all our restaurant members are adhering to the state’s strict safety standards, because they understand the risk that failure would mean to their employees, customers and the future of their businesses.”

Mills’ office pointed out that the early business closing times are in line with actions taken by other states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York, and said curbside pickup and delivery service are still permitted after 9 p.m.

Shah did announce one policy change Friday. In line with recently updated guidelines from the federal CDC, Mainers who have been exposed to someone with the virus can now quarantine for 10 days instead of 14. He said quarantining is good for public health because it breaks the train of transmission, “but it comes at a great private cost.” He said the new guidelines will help individuals stay safe while returning to their normal lives sooner.

Mills is in quarantine after a member of her security detail tested positive for COVID-19 and was scheduled to be tested for the virus on Friday. Shah and Lambrew were asked about Mills, who didn’t attend the briefing, and whether her test results were known. Neither answered the question directly but said the governor is doing well and not experiencing any symptoms.

Also Friday, Mills updated the state’s color-coded system for schools and moved Oxford County into the yellow category, where it joined Androscoggin, Somerset and York counties. A yellow categorization means elevated risk and advises schools to consider additional precautions, such as hybrid learning models or reducing the number of people in classrooms. Many schools, even those in counties with green designations, already are taking extra safety measures.

Franklin and Washington counties, which had been categorized as yellow, moved back to green because their per capita case rates dipped below the state average. All other counties are classified as green, although Penobscot County is being closely monitored because its new case rate has been increasing rapidly.

Over the last 30 days, there have been 338 confirmed or probable cases associated with schools. There are 28 open outbreaks, but only nine of them have more than five cases.

Since the pandemic reached Maine in March, the CDC has reported 12,844 confirmed or probable cases and 224 deaths. There have been 11 deaths so far in December. Friday’s deaths were a man in his 90s from Androscoggin County, a woman in her 80s from Androscoggin County, a woman in her 50s from Oxford County and a man in his 80s from York County.

Last month, 67 people died from COVID-19, the most in any month and more than the previous five months combined.

The seven-day average crept back up to 228 Friday. In 15 of the last 30 days, daily cases have gone over 200. Only five times have cases dipped below 150, and two of those days were Thanksgiving, when the state lab was closed, and the day after, when there were fewer tests to process. One month ago, the seven-day average was 98. Two months ago, it was just 33 cases.

The seven-day positivity rate is now 4.87 percent, three times what it was one month ago.

New cases were reported Friday in every county except Washington. Kennebec County had the most, with 51, followed by Penobscot with 47. There are now 2,743 active cases, which is 142 more than Thursday. In one week, the number of active cases has increased by 35 percent.

Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been setting new records across the country as the winter surge health experts predicted has settled in. As of Friday, the number of U.S. cases had topped 14 million, deaths had reached 275,000 and more than 100,000 were hospitalized. More spread is likely to be tied to the Thanksgiving holiday, when many people traveled, some across state lines.

The worst stretch of the pandemic comes as pharmaceutical companies and the federal government prepare to roll out distribution of vaccines this month, although it is likely to be well into 2021 before vaccinations become widespread.

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