The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday that it will scale back case investigations in light of the recent uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Going forward, investigations will be launched only for those under 18 or 65 and older, health care workers and first responders, those who are hospitalized, those with disabilities, people living or working in congregate living facilities, and individuals associated with schools or child care facilities.

That will cut contact tracing 40 to 60 percent while protecting the most vulnerable populations, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC. Contact tracing is a key tool public health workers use to try to curb transmission of infectious diseases by making sure people who may be contagious are contacted and quarantined. People who don’t fall into the categories to be contact traced will still be notified of a positive test and asked to notify close contacts on their own.

The announcement came on a day that Maine saw yet another surge in cases, with 427 new cases reported, another one-day record. There were no additional deaths.

The previous daily record of new cases was 349 on Dec. 2. The seven-day daily average stood at 291.1 on Monday, compared with 168.1 a week ago and 156 a month ago. In mid-October, the seven day daily average was about 30 cases.

A pedestrian crosses High Street in downtown Portland in mid-November. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Seventeen people in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services are being redeployed to help contact people who are not in one of the groups that will still receive case investigation and contact tracing services.

“The changes I’ve outlined have been very challenging,” Shah said in a media briefing Monday. “There were no easy choices in front of us.”

As cases have grown in Maine over the last several weeks, Shah said the Maine CDC “finds itself sort of in the position of a very busy, crowded emergency room, serving first those in the highest need at their greatest moment of need.”

To try to keep up with demand, the Maine CDC is hiring 80 new case investigators and contact tracers over the next month, on top of the 135 people currently doing those jobs.

York County reported 110 new cases on Monday, while Cumberland County logged 93, with 66 new cases in Kennebec County and 64 in Androscoggin County. Statewide, there were 3,402 active cases.

“We’ve hit another mark that I hoped we would never hit,” Shah said in a tweet. “Sadly, this may not be the last time.”

Over the past 28 days, Androscoggin County had the highest COVID-19 case rate per capita, at 68.34 per 10,000 population. The next highest was York County at 45.85, while Cumberland County’s stood at 39.46.

The increase in cases has prevented state workers from completing tasks. For instance, there is now a “significant backlog of test results” at the Maine CDC, the agency said in a news release.

“Maine CDC is receiving a high volume of positive test results from the state lab and other labs, leading to delays in the next step in the process of assigning positive results to case investigators. In the coming days, the case count will significantly increase as 4,500 positive test results from November 30 to Dec. 6 are reviewed to determine if they are new cases,” the CDC said news release.

Some positive results are duplicates of previously reported cases and need to be weeded out, while others are test results from out-of-state residents that need to be reported to other states.

In other developments, Jeanne Lambrew, health and human services commissioner, said federal officials on Monday promised to increase shipments of  COVID-19 rapid antigen tests that had slowed down in recent weeks so that the state would receive the 400,000 tests that it was originally promised in October.

The free rapid tests, which can produce results as soon as 15 minutes, are available as a drive-thru service at 65 Walgreens pharmacies throughout the state.

Lambrew said Maine had received only 168,000 of the tests through Monday, but after she brought up the issue in a call with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials, they promised Maine would receive all the tests by the end of the year or in early January.

“That still leaves open the question of what happens then?” Lambrew said. “We do continue to be concerned about the supply of rapid tests coming our way.”

Federal funding for testing could dry up in January if congressional action is not taken.

A compromise COVID-19 relief bill being pushed by Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, with a bipartisan group of senators and representatives, would set aside $16 billion for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution. The bill is still being discussed by congressional leaders,

Patients can get one of the rapid tests at Walgreens, and the state is also setting aside 25 percent of the tests for certain groups, such as school employees, correctional officers and health care workers.

Shah had warned on Friday that the agency was considering scaling back investigations because the “ferocious” increase in new cases is leaving employees struggling to keep up with the work load.

The surge in cases in Maine and across the United States comes as vaccines near approval. Pfizer’s vaccine candidate may receive Food and Drug Administration emergency use approval as soon as later this week, with the first shipments of the vaccine reaching states early next week. A second vaccine developed by Moderna could receive FDA approval by Dec. 17, with shipments beginning shortly thereafter.

Overall, there have been 13,775 cases of COVID-19 in Maine since the pandemic began, and 227 deaths. On Monday, 170 people were being treated as inpatients in Maine hospitals, with 52 in critical care beds.

Also on Monday, Maine DHHS offices in Machias, Calais and Ellsworth were closed after an “individual associated with these offices” tested positive for COVID-19. The offices are expected to reopen on Tuesday.

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