The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped by 39 on Thursday, one day after state health officials first reported outbreaks at a Bangor homeless shelter and a Portland meat processing plant.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also reported one additional fatality Thursday – a woman in her 50s living in Cumberland County – from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, increasing the death toll to 53.

To date, there have been 1,095 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine, although the actual number of infections statewide is much higher because not everyone with symptoms is being tested.

While tiny compared to surges playing out in hard-hit and more populous states to the south, the 39 new cases is the largest single-day jump in Maine since April 13. The spike occurred one day before the administration of Gov. Janet Mills plans to rollback some restrictions on businesses as part of a gradual – too gradual, some critics say – process of reopening Maine’s economy.

One closely watched statistic is the number of “active” cases – calculated by subtracting recoveries and deaths from the case total – which has been trending downward since reaching a peak of 446 cases on April 17. Public health experts agree that a decline in cases for at least two weeks is one of the most important criteria for determining whether it is safe to begin reopening the economy.

The number of active cases dropped to 389 on Wednesday but rose to 411 on Thursday, an increase of 22 cases driven in large part by the outbreak at the Bangor shelter. The Maine CDC said that 631 people had recovered from the disease and been released from isolation.

Nearly half of Thursday’s increase in total cases is attributable to the outbreak, first reported Wednesday, at the Hope House homeless shelter in Bangor.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said 17 guests and four staff have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Hope House shelter. The agency has worked with Hope House to test all residents and staff, and is working with management at the Tyson Foods meat processing plant in Portland to conduct universal testing among the roughly 400 employees.

A total of 10 employees at the Tyson plant have tested positive for the disease in what is the largest outbreak at a non-health care or long-term care facility in Maine.

Shah said that “every single new outbreak presents new challenges as well as raises concerns.” But he said the Maine CDC’s policy of immediately requiring reports of potential outbreaks – identified as more than three cases at a facility – and then pursuing universal testing quickly alerts staff to potential hotspots.

“We are out there discovering them because we are looking for them, so it’s a deliberative fact-finding process that we are taking, by design,” Shah said during his daily briefing. “We’d rather know about something like that happening, and be able to mitigate it, rather than not know it is happening to make our numbers look different.”

The Maine CDC is also monitoring outbreaks among residents and staff at several nursing homes or long-term care facilities. As of Thursday, there were:

• 76 cases at Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation.

• 51 cases at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

• 43 cases at Tall Pines nursing home in Belfast.

•14 cases at Edgewood Rehabilitation and Living Center in Farmington.

•36 cases at Falmouth By the Sea.

• 15 cases at The Cedars in Portland.

There were 35 people hospitalized with COVID-19, which is an increase of three since Wednesday. Among those individuals, 18 people were being treated in intensive care units while eight patients were hooked up to ventilators because of respiratory distress.

Maine had a total of 330 critical care beds in its hospitals Thursday, of which 171 were available, and a total of 313 ventilators, of which 286 were available. In addition, there were 397 alternative ventilators available.

Although confirmed case numbers and deaths continue to increase, the infection curve appears to have been flattening in recent weeks, so much so that Mills administration is preparing to relax some restrictions.

Starting Friday, hair salons, golf course, car dealerships, pet groomers and drive-in theaters will be allowed to reopen as long as they demonstrate they can operate safely. Additionally, hospitals and other health care providers can resume offering elective surgeries, and dentists are allowed to reopen, although the extent of dentists’ ability to resume routine or preventive care was unclear Thursday.

Earlier Thursday, the Maine Department of Labor reported that 7,400 Mainers filed new unemployment claims last week as more workers find themselves sidelined by the ongoing crisis. Roughly one of every seven workers in the state has sought unemployment assistance since the pandemic began.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, appearing alongside Shah during the daily briefing, said her office will begin processing applications on Friday for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. That federal program is aimed at helping self-employed workers or others who do not qualify under traditional unemployment.

Fortman said it is difficult to anticipate how many Mainers will qualify for the new federal program because her office does not typically work with self-employed individuals. But she said best estimates are that about 70,000 people could be eligible.

“We don’t know how many of those folks were impacted by COVID-19 … and you must have been impacted by COVID-19” to be eligible, Fortman said.

As of last week, the Department of Labor had distributed roughly $200 million in unemployment assistance to more than 70,000 Maine workers. But tens of thousands more have been denied assistance under the state program because they were self-employed or didn’t meet other criteria, or are awaiting determinations on eligibility.


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