LEWISTON — The day after state health officials Wednesday said Maine would follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s lead and recommend that all people, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas with high levels of community transmission, it became evident that people were unclear about what that shift means.

The change in masking recommendations comes at the end of a tough month for Maine and the country in the fight against COVID-19: After roughly eight weeks of downward trends, daily new cases are on the rise now.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah gave a simple explanation for the shift: the delta variant.

On Thursday, Maine reported 120 new cases of COVID-19, the highest one-day total since May. There were four new cases in Androscoggin and Oxford counties each, and two in Franklin County. There were no additional deaths.

A comparison of the seven-day average of new daily cases per capita over two weeks shows a nearly 170% increase statewide. As of Thursday, there was an average of 0.51 new cases per 10,000 residents reported over the past seven days. Two weeks ago, the seven-day average stood at 0.19 cases per 10,000 residents.

A rolling average of new cases per capita provides the best snapshot of trends over a period of time and smooths out the daily blips and dips in cases.

Franklin County seemed to be in excellent shape two weeks ago: On July 15, the county reported an average of 0.03 cases per 10,000 individuals there. By Thursday, that number had jumped by 700%, to 0.24 cases.

Oxford County’s seven-day average rose by about 68% Thursday. Only Androscoggin County saw a decrease to its seven-day average.

“Based on what we know today, the delta variant is more wily and more formidable,” Shah said at a media briefing Wednesday. “It’s roughly twice as contagious as other strains of the COVID-19 virus. And it has become far more prominent in Maine, accounting for at least 47% of new cases, and likely even more than that.”

Along Lisbon Street Thursday morning, most people said they did not know the specifics of the shift or how this would affect them. And it makes sense: the recommendation only applies to counties that have “high” or “substantial” levels of community transmission, according to a designation made by the U.S. CDC, which could change daily.

During the media briefing Wednesday, York and Piscataquis counties were listed as having “substantial” levels of transmission. By that evening, they were back down to moderate — meaning that the recommendation no longer applied there – but Waldo County was upgraded, and so the recommendation was then in effect there.

Adriana Ortiz-Burnham of Monmouth sits with her father, Adrian Ortiz, for coffee on Thursday at Forage Market in Lewiston. Both father and daughter said they’re frustrated that the spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated people has led to the current situation. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Adrian Ortiz says he is frustrated: not about the recommendation itself, but that unvaccinated people have landed everyone in this situation.

“If anybody reads anything in the headlines, you realize that because of people (who) are not getting vaccinated themselves, (that) this is the consequence of that,” he said.

Shah, from the CDC, said that unvaccinated individuals, “who are getting together and having contact,” are driving the rise in transmission.

“What’s going on today, though, is the concern that vaccinated individuals could inadvertently be transmitting the virus to others who are not yet vaccinated or not fully vaccinated,” Shah said.

Ortiz, of Monmouth, said that the people who are eligible to receive the vaccine and have access to it but still choose to not get inoculated are denying science.

“It means they deny why planes fly, they deny how TV works. Everything that works that they use in their house, they have a scientific principle behind it,” he said. “So, science doesn’t apply in biology? Come on, really?”

His daughter, Adriana Ortiz-Burnham, also of Monmouth, agreed with her father.

“I also think to not be vaccinated, to not choose to wear a mask, to not just take these simple precautions is really irresponsible because you’re just abandoning your social contract with everyone in your community, especially the most vulnerable,” she said. “And that’s who we should all be coming together to support instead of isolating them and alienating them and being like, oh well we’re vaccinated so everything’s all back to normal.”

Things are not back to normal, Ortiz-Burnham said, and Shah said the same Wednesday.

“A year ago, we weren’t even talking about variants. But now, it seems that every single conversation we have is some form of noun, verb and ‘variants,’” Shah said. “This is a reminder that we’re still in the pandemic.”

Sitting nearby to the Ortizes on Thursday morning was Keith Smith. He said the CDC “can’t make up their mind” about what people should be doing.

Keith Smith of Harpswell sits outside Forage Market on Thursday having a cup of coffee. Smith said he believes the number of COVID cases are far fewer than what is reported. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The Harpswell resident said “there’s no continuous rationale. It’s always hide behind an apparent rise and I’m not even sure they’re accurate in the way they’re counting it.”

Smith said he’s read news reports that claim that people have been misdiagnosed with COVID at hospitals, but it’s reported as a case anyway. He declined to offer his sources.

Shah, on the other hand, said that the shifts in recommendations are science in action.

“This is what science does: Something new comes on the horizon, scientists study it and our recommendations to keep you safe evolve as a result,” he said. “That’s what good science does and that’s what’s happening here.”

A couple sitting with their baby on Lisbon Street said they’d done their part, and now they’re waiting for others to do the same.

“Quite frankly, I find it stupid because if people just went and got their shots, we would all be set,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Chris Martin of Lewiston said he’ll do what’s needed to bring the pandemic to an end.

“I do agree that whether you’re vaccinated or not, wear a mask if it helps get rid of the (coronavirus). Common sense,” he said. “If you don’t want to wear your mask, then you’re helping kill us.”

Even though vaccinations provide a remarkable level of protection against the virus, Shah said vaccinated people in rare cases can unknowingly transmit the virus, which is why even vaccinated people should wear masks in some instances.

Martin said not getting vaccinated or not wearing a mask when the experts recommend it could be a fatal mistake.

“If you catch the coronavirus, I don’t know how severe it’s going to be, whether you live or die,” he said. “You really want to take the chance? Really? C’mon man, it’s common sense.”

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