All 16 Maine counties still have the “green light” to potentially resume in-classroom instruction this fall, although state officials plan to reassess Penobscot and York counties next week because of recent outbreaks and rising case numbers.

An updated, color-coded assessment released Friday by the Maine Department of Education lists every county in the state as green, suggesting “a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and that schools may consider in-person instruction.”

Those color-coded assessments are slated to be updated every two weeks as a guide for local school administrators making decisions about the fall. But the administration of Gov. Janet Mills plans to take another look at York and Penobscot counties a week early “to determine if they meet the threshold for yellow or red designation,” the Department of Education announced.

Even with a green designation, schools will have to abide by a long list of health and safety protocols to resume classroom instruction. A “yellow” designation suggests elevated risks potentially requiring additional precautions or hybrid instructional models combining remote and in-person teaching, while a “red” classification suggests too high a transmission risk for classroom instruction.

Both Penobscot and York counties are experiencing outbreaks tied to an Aug. 7 wedding and reception in Millinocket where many participants were reportedly not wearing masks or practicing physical distancing.

As of Friday, health officials had linked 123 cases to the event, making it Maine’s largest outbreak to date.

“Recent increasing case rates as well as open outbreaks in Penobscot and York are of concern,” the Department of Education said in a statement. “Data and trends from these counties will be closely monitored and reassessed early.”

One of the spinoff outbreaks is occurring at the York County Jail, where there were at least 54 cases, including 35 inmates and 19 staff, as of Friday. One correctional officer at the jail attended the Millinocket wedding.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also is tracking nine cases at the Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison that also are linked to the Millinocket wedding.

School officials in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway have already opted to push back their fall reopening dates by two weeks because of the outbreak. At least six school staff members – some of whom attended the event – have tested positive for the virus, according to the Bangor Daily News.

RATES STILL LOW

Overall, Maine has consistently had among the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, although Mills and Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah have cautioned that outbreaks like those emanating from Millinocket underscore the need for continued vigilance.

On Friday, health officials reported 22 new cases of COVID-19 but no additional deaths among individuals with the coronavirus. That figure does not include the 36 additional cases detected at the York County Jail, however, because the test results arrived after the reporting cut-off time. They are expected to be included in Saturday’s totals.

People walk on Fore Street in Portland’s Old Port on Sunday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Maine CDC has reported 4,436 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the virus began appearing in Maine in mid-March. The additional 22 cases reported Friday is equivalent to the average number of new cases reported during the previous seven-day period, according to the Maine CDC.

The number of individuals in Maine who have died after contracting COVID-19 held steady at 132 on Friday.

After accounting for the 132 deaths and the 3,887 people who have recovered from the virus, the Maine CDC was reporting 417 active cases of the disease on Friday, which is a decrease of 18.

COLLEGE CASES

A small number of new cases continue to pop up at Maine’s colleges and universities as students and faculty prepare for the fall semester.

The University of New England said Friday that one additional student had tested positive for the virus but that the student, who attends the Portland campus, had not yet participated in any classes or labs. Three other students had previously tested positive before arriving on campus, UNE spokeswoman Sarah Delage said.

UNE is requiring students to present a negative test upon reporting to campus for the fall semester and they are then tested again. As of Friday morning, UNE had reported testing 2,074  individuals but still needed to test approximately 350 commuter students who had not yet arrived on campus.

Bates College also announced Friday that a student had tested positive, which was the first time the virus had been detected among the more than 1,700 tests of faculty and students to date, according to a report in the Lewiston Sun Journal.

There have also been nine cases reported to date within the University of Maine System, which is preparing to begin classes at the various campuses on Monday. Those cases include: six at UMaine Orono and one each among students or staff at UMaine Farmington, the University of Southern Maine and the UMaine School of Law.

The system had tested more than 3,400 people to date as part of its asymptomatic screening for the fall semester.

TESTING EXPANSION

Meanwhile, Maine’s testing capacity is poised to expand dramatically.

On Thursday, officials with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services reported that a new mobile testing laboratory was now operational at the Maine CDC laboratory in Augusta. The mobile lab, which was originally expected to go online in July, will roughly quadruple the state lab’s testing capacity from 6,000 tests per week to more than 25,000.

The mobile lab was made possible through a partnership with Idexx Laboratories, a Westbrook-based veterinary diagnostics firm that broadened the scope of its work amid the pandemic to develop COVID-19 tests.

Also Thursday, Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories, which has a lab and manufacturing plants in Scarborough and Westbrook, announced a new $5, 15-minute antigen test that was granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

Later in the day, the White House announced that the Trump administration plans to purchase 150 million of the Abbott tests for distribution across the country.

Maine continues to have among the lowest infection rates in the country. As of Friday, Maine was averaging 1.6 new COVID-19 cases for every 100,000 residents during the previous seven-day period, according to tracking and analysis by the Harvard Global Health Institute. That was the third-lowest rate in the nation, behind New Hampshire (1.4 per 100,000) and Vermont (1.0).

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