Amy Gwinn-Becker of Portland coaxes her puppy, Cleo, a miniature schnauzer, along Brown Street in Portland on Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday but no new deaths, and the state received a shipment from the federal government of an anti-viral drug that has shown promise in treating hospitalized patients infected with the novel coronavirus.

The most recent figures from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of active cases statewide stood at 499, a decline of 26 from Monday but still well above the 389 active cases reported two weeks ago. There were no new outbreaks reported Tuesday.

The drug, remdesivir, was the subject of a human clinical trial by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that showed an average reduction in hospitalization from 15 days for patients who were given a placebo to 11 days for patients who were taking the drug. Maine Medical Center in Portland participated in the clinical trial, the results of which were released in late April.

Because of the public health emergency, the Food and Drug Administration sped up approval of the drug, and it is now being made available nationally. Scientists say patients benefit from the treatment, but not so much that it should dramatically alter the way governments respond to the pandemic.

Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, said when the state received the shipment, it was distributed to hospitals across Maine “within the hour.”

“We wanted to get it into the hands of doctors ASAP,” Shah said at Tuesday’s media briefing. He said “the science is still underway” with remdesivir, and that future studies could look at how effective it is when combined with other drugs for treatments.

Maine received enough drugs in the shipment for 50 patients, Shah said. There are currently 34 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pressed federal health officials during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday to ensure that remdesivir and other drugs that are developed to treat COVID-19 are distributed in a fair way to patients who need them.

Collins said access to the drugs should be done so that “patient care is not delayed and so that it doesn’t depend on which state you live in, whether or not you’re going to get access to these treatments” or a vaccine. Stephen Hahn, FDA commissioner, said the drugs would be distributed in an “evidence-based” way to states.

The Maine CDC said the total number of COVID-19 cases statewide has risen to 1,477 since the pandemic began, and 913 people have recovered, an increase of 41 recoveries since Monday. Of the total cases, 721 have been in Cumberland County, while 264 have occurred in York County.

The state had a total of 303 critical care beds Tuesday, of which 130 were available, and 314 total ventilators, of which 228 were available. There were also 407 alternative ventilators available.

The relatively low increase in cases followed a spike in positive tests caused by outbreaks at Tyson Foods and at congregate care facilities last week. Later this week, Maine plans ramp up testing by an additional 5,000 tests per week in a partnership with Westbrook’s Idexx, a development that Gov. Janet Mills called a “game changer” last week because it greatly expands Maine’s testing capacity.

Shah said the last positive case at Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community in Belfast was recorded 18 days ago, and barring new cases, the outbreak there is over.

“We have reached an epidemiological milestone,” Shah said. Overall, 32 residents had tested positive, with 13 deaths. Eleven staff members also tested positive.

Shah said on Monday that his agency is tracking small outbreaks at three more congregate settings: four cases at a Residential and Community Support Service facility in Sanford, three at a Granite Bay Care home in Brunswick and three cases affiliated with Maple House in Portland run by Spurwink, which provides behavioral health and education services to children and adults.

The Maine CDC has focused on detecting potential outbreaks at nursing homes and other congregate settings and then recommending testing of all residents and staff of those facilities. That has led to spikes in active case numbers, at times, as new outbreaks are detected.

Shah has cautioned that the anticipated ramp-up of testing capacity at the Maine CDC lab later this week will likely lead to additional cases as it becomes easier for doctors to order tests for patients with symptoms.

Shah said the Maine CDC is doing a daily comprehensive analysis on cases, hospitalizations, deaths, recoveries and other data to determine how to reopen in a gradual way.

“It’s the data that shows us how to do (reopening), not the date,” Shah said.

Many public health experts say the conditions for a safe economic reopening must include: a two-week decline in cases, deaths and hospitalizations; widespread access to testing for the public; and a robust track-and-trace system for identifying and monitoring people who have been exposed.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force and a national infectious disease expert, said during the Senate hearing on Tuesday that states that reopen too quickly risk having a major resurgence of COVID-19.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.

Gov. Janet Mills accelerated the reopening schedule for retail stores as well as fitness centers – on a restricted basis – starting Monday in Aroostook, Piscataquis, Washington, Hancock, Somerset, Franklin, Oxford, Kennebec, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. Restaurants in those dozen counties are scheduled to resume dine-in service on Monday as long as operators limit capacity, allow for physical distancing and take other steps to reduce the risks of customers or employees transmitting the disease.

Mills announced her rural reopening plan after the administration negotiated the deal with Idexx that will more than triple the testing capacity at the Maine CDC lab. Maine has, to date, not seen the levels of infection experienced in southern New England and mid-Atlantic states.

Mills’ rural reopening plan does not apply to businesses in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties, where Maine CDC epidemiologists have determined that community transmission is occurring. Retail stores and other businesses not already exempt from the closure mandates are slated to reopen on June 1.

The largest outbreak to date at a business other than a health care or long-term care facility has been at the Tyson Foods plant in Portland. There have been 51 confirmed cases among the more than 400 employees and contractors who were tested, a figure that has not changed since late last week.

Meanwhile, Maine DHHS launched an awareness campaign on Tuesday to remind Mainers who have lost health insurance coverage because of job loss to see if they qualify for Medicaid or Affordable Care Act marketplace insurance.

“Maine people may qualify for affordable health coverage options, especially those who have lost jobs or income because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement. “We urge Maine people to visit to understand their options and sign up. Today more than ever, coverage is critical to ensuring access to needed health care.”

Lambrew also said that Maine dentists may be allowed to begin providing routine care as soon as next week. Maine dentists have sharply criticized the Mills administration for making Maine one of the few states to not have reopened for routine care – like teeth cleanings and filling cavities – or set a date to do so.

Collins asked Dr. Robert Redfield, U.S. CDC director during Tuesday’s committee meeting whether states should be allowing dentists to provide routine care. Redfield said the U.S. CDC should be issuing new guidelines soon.

Lambrew – who had said last week that the state was waiting for the U.S. CDC to issue new recommendations – said if the U.S. CDC did not come up with new guidelines by Monday, the Mills administration would defer to the American Dental Association and the Maine Dental Association on how to proceed. Both groups have said dentists could begin providing routine care with proper safety procedures in place.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: