AUGUSTA — Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will no longer conduct contact tracing, effective Feb. 8. 

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Wednesday, Feb. 2, that because the omicron variant of COVID-19 is so much more contagious than previous variants of the virus, and is transmitted in a shorter period of time, contact tracing has become less effective.

Before omicron, he said, it took about three days after being exposed to be able to pass the virus on to others. With omicron, people are contagious about a day to a day and a half earlier, Shah said. The majority of transmissions take place two days before people have symptoms, or in the first few days after they start having symptoms.

“…When you become contagious, people start spreading the disease much sooner, often before contact tracers can reach them,” he said.

The decision to end contact tracing is based, he said, on the science and not on the backlog of positive tests waiting to be processed, which now stands at 58,000. Also, because the U.S. CDC has shortened the quarantine period to five days inside, followed by five days wearing a mask, “by the time contact tracers reach people, their quarantine period may be over… .”

The process is based on the premise that public health agencies can identify a positive case, get their close contacts, reach out to those close contacts and advise them to quarantine, all before tet close contact has a chance to spread COVID-19 to others.

“With omicron, contact tracing does not get to those folks fast enough,” Shah said.

Contact tracing will now be in the hands of those who test positive. If someone tests positive, Shah recommends staying home and notifying all of their own close contacts. “Anyone you were around for at least 15 minutes within six feet going back two days before symptoms appeared or two days before the positive test,” he said.

“If you get a call from a friend who you had lunch with the other day who tells you they now have COVID and you are a close contact, you should quarantine,” he said, especially if you have not received all required doeses of vaccine or have not received a  booster.

Certain facilities, like hospitals, nursing homes and prisons, will still continue with contact tracing, because in those settings, Shah said, “the utility of contact tracing remains high.”

In other news, Shah said his agency is reporting eight new COVID-19-related deaths in the state. Six were women and two were men; One was in their 50s, one was in their 60s, three were in their 70s and three were in their 80s. Three were from Cumberland County, one was from Franklin, one was from Penobscot, two were from Somerset and one was from York County. Shah said this brings the total number of COVID deaths in the state to 1,759. 

Right now there are 344 people in the hospital with COVID-19, down from 411 two weeks ago. There are 83 people in intensive care units, down from 202 two weeks ago; 38 are on ventilators, down from 53 two weeks ago. The seve- day positivity rate is 13.7%, down from 21.2% two weeks ago. Overall he said, the trend is encouraging, but it is too soon to tell what the future holds. As of this morning, 77.6% of the population of Maine is fully vaccinated with just over 52% of that population also boosted.

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said Gov. Janet Mills has launched a free mail testing program offering 125,000 rapid tests targeting vulnerable populations in the state. People can log onto accesscovidtest.org to enter their zip code and see if they qualify for these free tests. Lambrew said four free federal at-home tests can be ordered from covidtest.gov, “no matter where you live in Maine.”

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