Nine people have now contracted COVID-19 at The Commons, the skilled nursing facility at Tall Pines. In his Thursday, Feb. 11, media briefing, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said four more people have tested positive at the facility since Tuesday.

When asked about the Harbor Hill Center outbreak, also in Belfast, Shah said the total there remained at seven people with the disease.

Shah spoke about the recent case of the U.K. variant that was reported yesterday, the first of its kind in the state. He described the variant as small genetic errors, or mutations, that replicate in great numbers. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the U.S. and around the world throughout this pandemic, he said.

“I know that when I use words like 'mutation' and 'variant,' it presses all of the scary buttons all at once,” he said. “But most variants out there, and there are hundreds if not thousands, most of those variants do not change how the virus behaves.”

One of the differences this particular variant has compared to the original COVID-19 virus is that it can spread more easily, he said.

According to Shah, some estimates  find it 20% more contagious, while other estimates track it closer to 40% to 50% more easily spread. This may increase the number of people who will need to be hospitalized and has the potential of overwhelming emergency care facilities.

While it is likely that additional variant cases will be discovered, in addition to other variants, the good news is that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective against these variants, he said.

When asked how the person who contracted the variant strain of the disease is doing, Shah said he is doing well. Some members of his household also contracted the virus and they are also doing well and all are isolating.

As of today, 215,892 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered throughout the state. This includes 155,872 first doses and 60,020 second doses.

Next week, Shah said, the state is in line to receive 22,475 additional doses,an increase of 1,000 doses over this week's amount. He said that while the CDC is excited the allocations are going up, currently the state  has only vaccinated a third of the 70-and-over population in Maine.

“While we are thrilled to be receiving more doses,” he said, “we still have 130,000 people 70 and older who need this.”

With school vacation just around the corner, Shah spoke about traveling outside of the state. Travel in a pandemic, he said, inherently carries some risk. He added that the state currently with the highest percentage of new cases being attributed to variants is Florida.

“My recommendation to folks, if you are traveling on a vacation and want to relax,” he said, “I understand those things, but simultaneously, you can’t let down your guard.”

When returning to Maine, Gov. Mills' travel requirements still apply. You must have a negative test upon reentering Maine or quarantine for at least 10 days before going back to school. “You have to figure in that time to get back, quarantine, or get tested…,” he said.

Shah said that as of today, there have been a total of 42,058 cases of COVID-19 in Maine, an increase of 175 people since yesterday. Currently 100 people are hospitalized with the disease, a decrease of 17 since Tuesday’s briefing. Twenty-two people are in intensive care units, and 11 are on ventilators. Overall, 641 people have died in the state from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

While these are encouraging numbers in terms of decreasing hospitalizations, case counts and deaths, he said, “My optimism is tempered by concern that folks will let their guard down.”

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