Spike in Maine coronavirus cases over last two weeks, health official says

Asked if the recent spike was attributed to Labor Day gatherings, Shah said “we hypothesize that Labor Day activities” were a factor, but “as a scientific matter we don’t have definitive proof.” Contact tracing is underway, he said.

In another worrying sign, Shah said the median age of people contracting the virus has dropped significantly.

From Mar. 1 through May, he said, the median age was 51.3. It dropped to 41.4 from June 1 through September, and for the month of September, it hovered at 40.

Shah was asked if he felt the reopening of schools and colleges may explain the downward age trend. He said other factors, such as better infection control measures at congregate care settings like nursing homes, may be at play, as well as “the resumption of economic and social activity,” especially among younger residents.

“Is it related to colleges? It’s possible,” Shah said, while noting that the number of new cases on college campuses in Maine have accounted for “a fraction” of the total number of new infections since Aug. 1.

Over the past two weeks, he said, Maine has seen new cases in all 16 of its counties, and 412 of the 488 infections weren’t associated with any known outbreaks under investigation.

The data, he said, confirms what officials suspected all along: that the virus “is in every part of the state and that each and every one of us is potentially vulnerable to it.” He urged Mainers to continue taking precautions such as face coverings and physical distancing.

At the same time, Maine’s outpacing the rest of the country when it comes to controlling the spread of the deadly contagion, according to Shah.

He said the seven-day positive test rate is 0.49 percent, compared to 5 percent nationwide. And, he said, Maine’s testing at a higher rate than the rest of the country, another factor in the increase in cases.

As of Thursday, he said, Maine was performing 459 tests per every 100,000 people, compared to about 250 tests per 100,000 for the rest of the country.

Shah and state Health and Human Service Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, who also briefed reporters, both urged Mainers to get flu shots with winter approaching.

Lambrew also announced a $1 million program funded by federal COVID-19 relief dollars to support infection prevention and control measures at congregate care facilities like group homes.

The program doesn’t include nursing homes, since they’re required to meet separate state and federal standards and because they’ve already received funding from MaineCare, the state’s free and low-cost health insurer, Lambrew’s agency said in a statement.

The initiative will support “free expert consultation” in infection control at facilities that qualify, which in addition to group homes include private nonmedical institutions, assisted living facilities, adult family care homes, and memory care homes, the statement said.

Lambrew told reporters that nurses and other health professionals will be dispatched to the facilities to review their infection control polices and practices and help develop plans for the homes so they can prepare for new safety regulations expected to take effect early next year.

“In Maine and across the country, COVID-19 has struck residents and staff at congregate care settings particularly hard,” Lambrew said in the statement. “This tailored clinical consultation will reduce the risk of infections among Maine people who are highly susceptible to the virus and improve consistency in infection prevention and control in these settings.”

Her words were echoed in the statement by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat.

“Congregate care settings, including the many Maine people who call them home, are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” Mills said. “This investment will enable us to support these homes so that that staff can have the training and resources they need to keep their residents healthy amid this ongoing pandemic.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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