Gov. Janet Mills said Friday that she would soon be releasing a plan on how to reopen Maine, even as the state reported 31 new cases and two more deaths from COVID-19.

In a statement issued shortly after the new figures were released, Mills said her administration “has been connecting with individual economic sectors across the state to devise a plan for how we gradually reopen the Maine economy. Those decisions, of course, are driven first and foremost by the need to protect the public health. We will release details of the plan in the near future.”

Mills provided no details about the timing of the reopening or how it would be carried out. She said she has been working with New Hampshire and Vermont on regional planning for COVID-19 reopening, but so far the talks have been informal.

Lindsay Crete, a Mills spokeswoman, said in response to follow-up questions that no details of the plan would be released Friday but are “forthcoming.”

Public health experts have listed several criteria that need to be met before reopening should begin, including a minimum two-week decline in in the daily number of new cases, greatly expanded testing, tracing of people who may have been exposed to COVID-19, and enough health system capacity and protective gear for health care workers to care for patients. Mills has said she agrees with those criteria.

The rate at which Maine’s cases have increased has slowed over the last two weeks, but the number of cases is still rising.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a media briefing Friday that it’s possible certain parts of the state would begin reopening before others. All reopening would be done in a gradual, phased-in approach.

“We would consider reopening certain areas of the state before others,” Shah said, without elaborating which areas would be first or last to reopen. “The epidemic is different in different parts of the state.”

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said in response to follow-up questions that Shah was speaking in general terms and that “no geographic areas have been identified.”

“Dr. Shah was referring to certain segments of the economy, which are closed now but which could reopen with controls in place to limit the risk of spreading the virus, in areas of the state with low population density,” Long said. “Any consideration of a gradual reopening would result from convincing epidemiological evidence that shows low risk.”

Cumberland and York counties have had about two-thirds of the state’s 827 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, with 360 in Cumberland County and 170 in York County. Most other counties have had far fewer cases, although Kennebec County has reported 93 cases.

Mills said in her statement that she wants life to return to normal “as soon as it is safe to do so.”

“Our hearts break to see closed storefronts and people struggling to make ends meet because of this crisis,” she said. “At the same time, we all know that reopening too soon and too aggressively will likely cause a secondary surge in COVID-19 cases, jeopardizing the lives of Maine people and further destabilizing the economy. None of us want that.”

One important effort the state CDC is taking that could boost Maine’s ability to reopen is doubling its contact tracing workforce, from 15 to 30. Shah said the expansion will be accomplished within the next week by redirecting existing CDC employees, asking people who recently retired to come back temporarily and training people who work in related health care fields.

A man walks through an otherwise empty parking lot of the Ocean Gateway Terminal in Portland on Thursday. Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday said she wants life to return to normal “as soon as it is safe to do so.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When a person tests positive for the virus, contact tracers identify and track down everyone with whom the infected person had contact over the previous two weeks, so that they can be quarantined to limit transmission of the virus to others.

The deaths reported Friday bring the total number of lives lost in Maine to 29 and the total number of confirmed cases to 827. There are now 446 active cases, an increase of 10 cases since Thursday. Recoveries increased by 19, to 352.

Among the active cases, there are 55 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 28 people who are in critical care and eight on a ventilator for respiratory assistance.

Shah said the deaths were two women from Waldo County, one in her 70s and one in her 80s.

The actual number of Maine residents who have contracted the coronavirus is much higher than the number of confirmed cases because of limited testing and because it can take anywhere from one to 14 days after initial exposure for a person to begin exhibiting symptoms. The CDC said Thursday that more than 14,000 people have tested negative to date.

Shah reviewed the case numbers at five long-term care facilities across the state where coronavirus outbreaks have occurred. He said a total of 112 residents and 52 staff members have tested positive at Falmouth by the Sea, the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation, Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough, Tall Pines in Belfast and The Cedars in Portland. Nine deaths have been recorded at the five facilities.

On Friday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced it would  temporarily increase payments by $10.1 million to congregate care facilities to “support their preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The additional $10.1 million in state and federal funds will support facilities that provide long-term services and support to children, older Mainers and people with behavioral health disorders,” the news release said.

Asked about the guidance for reopening that the Trump administration issued to the states, Shah said the state agrees with the tiered approach contemplated in the document, but noted that “the sooner we open, the higher the risk there may be of a secondary bump” in COVID-19 cases. He described the Trump administration’s document as a skeleton or framework that the state can use as a starting point for debate and discussion.

“Like all skeletons, it needs a lot more meat on the bones,” Shah said.

The Maine CDC reported on Friday that the state has 321 intensive care beds, with 151 available, and 344 ventilators, with 309 available. The state also has 240 alternative ventilators.

Shah said despite having to maintain a physical distance, he encouraged taking time out to talk and listen to friends and relatives.

“We are grieving not only the lives of Maine people we’ve lost, but also grieving the lives we ourselves used to have not too long ago,” Shah said.

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