AUGUSTA — Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Department of Education have revised COVID-19 contract tracing requirements for schools that have a universal masking policy. 

In light of the extreme contagiousness of the omicron variant of COVID-19, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of Maine Center for Disease Control, said Wednesday, Jan. 12, schools with universal masking may suspend contact tracing. The speed with which omicron is being transmitted reduces the effectiveness of contact tracing in schools, he said.

Contact tracing is the process of working with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19, Shah explained, and determining who they may have exposed. Those exposed, known as close contacts, are then advised to quarantine.

Omicron accelerates much too quickly and has a shorter period from when a person exposed to when they can start to transmit the disease. “The biology of omicron is such that contact tracing does not get to them (close contacts) fast enough,” he said. “We can’t chase 2022’s virus with 2019’s methods.”

Contact tracing is based on the idea that you can identify a positive case, identify their close contacts and get them quarantined before the close contacts themselves become infected and spread the disease to other people. 

The change with regard to contact tracing is in recognition of the benefits of in-person education. “Our goal is to keep kids in the classroom,” he said. “It’s critical.” Shah said his agency felt comfortable with this change when masks are worn universally, uniformly and includes all students, staff, faculty and even visitors.

In order to keep kids safe in school, Shah advised parents to make sure their children are vaccinated and boosted. Even if students are exposed at school, he said, the risk is significantly lower than if they are not vaccinated at all. Parents should make sure everyone in contact with their child is vaccinated, and children should stay home if they are feeling sick, he added.

As of today, 413 people are in the hospital with COVID-19 in the state. Shah said this was a hospitalization high mark since the pandemic began. Two weeks ago there were 331 people in the hospital with the virus. Of the 413now  hospitalized, 106 are in intensive care units, which is down three people from two weeks ago; 57 are on ventilators, which is four more than two weeks ago.

Shah said the surge in hospitalizations is concerning “both from the human toll it takes, as well as the continued stress they place on our health care system.”

For all the discussion of how the omicron variant is milder, Shah said, it is important to ask milder than what? And milder to whom?

“It doesn’t look milder if you consider the system as a whole,” he said. “That’s because something that is milder on an individual basis can cause immense strain (on the health care system) if it spreads more easily, and that is what’s happening with omicron.”

Even though testing continues to be a challenge in the state, it is still occurring at record levels, with 825 PCR tests performed for every 100,000 people, a new record. The seven-day positivity rate rose to 19.76% from 18.05% last week. Currently 5,702 doses of vaccine are being administered every day, an 18% increase from a week ago.

Currently across Maine 76 1/2% of the entire population is fully vaccinated.

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