AUGUSTA — Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday, Feb. 16, schools may suspend contact tracing regardless of whether there is a mask mandate in their district.

In response to the shorter transmission time of the omicron variant, Maine CDC previously recommended that schools suspend contact tracing, provided they had a mask requirement in place.

Shah said after talks with superintendents and looking at the data, it was determined the omicron variant spread so quickly that contact tracing had lost its effectiveness.

Regarding mask requirements in school, Shah said because of the recent positive trends, after school vacation week, “We will revisit masking in schools,” with the possibility of going from a recommendation to an option. The final decision, he said, will ultimately be left to districts. Historically, there is a potential for an upswing in cases during school vacation and Maine CDC will be looking at trends closely following the break.

The risk of transmission in schools, Shah said, appears to be trending down. Rates of COVID-19 have been falling in schools and vaccination rates are strong among school-age students. Fifty-four percent of all school-age kids are now fully vaccinated, including 38% of 5- to 11-year-olds and 68% of 12- to 19-year-olds.

Since the beginning of the school year, 35,000 students have been infected with COVID-19, which he said will offer them “some degree of immunity.”

In response to a question about how different the pandemic is now than a year ago, Shah said now there is greater availability of the vaccine. A year ago there were supply issues and there were more risks because vaccination rates were a lot lower.

“We’re not unfurling any banners,” he said, and added his agency will continue to keep a close eye on any new variants.

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Department of Health and Human Services said ahead of school vacation week, the state is expanding eligibility to receive free at-home COVID-19 testing kits. With school vacation starting Monday, Feb. 21, Lambrew encouraged families and school staff to get tested before returning to school to help prevent school-based transmission.

Every household in the state, she said, is now eligible to order the rapid home tests. Tests can be ordered at  accesscovidtest.org/, and will be delivered from Amazon within the week. So far 76,680 of the 125,000 free tests have been mailed directly to the homes of Maine residents, she said.

The program is limited to one order per household and any person over the age of 2 can use these tests. COVID-19 test can also be ordered through a national program at covidtests.gov

As of today, Maine CDC recorded nine additional COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the total to 1,858 people who have died since the pandemic began. The agency continues to work on the backlog of positive tests to process, now down to 30,300 cases, using automated technology.

Currently there are 249 people hospitalized, which Shah said is the same number as on Nov. 14, 2021. Two weeks ago there were 344 people in the hospital with COVID-19. Today there are 63 people in intensive care units, compared to 82 two weeks ago; 29 people are on ventilators, down from 38 two weeks ago. The seven-day positivity rate is down to 7.9% from 10.2% last week.

Right now, 1,609 doses of COVID-19 vaccine are being administered every day; 54% of all vaccines are boosters, he said. In Maine, 78.1% of the population is now fully vaccinated, with 53% having received boosters.

On a final note, Shah said the Maine CDC’s briefings moving forward will be on an “as needed” basis. “We will let everyone know,” when the next meeting will take place, he said.

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