A woman walks down Congress Street in downtown Portland on Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

State health officials warned again Thursday about the potential for exponential growth of COVID-19 infections in York County, urging residents to follow health precautions as the virus becomes prevalent in the wider community.

The 18 additional COVID-19 cases reported in York County on Thursday accounted for more than 40 percent of the 43 new confirmed or probable new cases reported. The now weeks-long spike in cases in York County has, in turn, driven up Maine’s statewide rolling average from 28 new infections daily for the week ending Sept. 17 to an average of 38 new daily infections on Thursday.

There were no additional deaths reported among individuals who have contracted the coronavirus.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention continues to monitor outbreaks in York County, including a new potential cluster at Brink Chiropractic Practice in Sanford. But Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah said “the rate of virus has achieved a certain level that it’s everywhere in wide circulation across the county.”

Shah said Maine CDC’s contract tracers are finding fewer cases emanating from specific outbreaks, but instead are seeing the virus spread from person to person in more casual settings because of its prevalence in the community. Shah gave the generic example of an infected person having lunch with one or two other people, who then go on to infect others in the personal circle.

“That is concerning because those are the preconditions for exponential growth,” Shah said during a Thursday briefing. “So we’ve got an ever-shrinking window in which to get a lid on what is happening in York County. And if we are not successful in doing so, that pattern of transmission … could quickly lead to exponential growth.”

Statewide, Maine continues to have lower COVID-19 infection rates than most other states.

Maine averaged 2.3 new cases for every 100,000 residents during the previous seven-day period, which is the second-lowest in the country after Vermont, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. North Dakota and South Dakota had the highest rates at 45.8 and 35.5 new cases for every 100,000 people.

Maine and Vermont also had the two lowest per capita infection rates to date of 388 and 276 cases, respectively, for every 100,000 residents, according to tracking by The New York Times.

The positivity rate for the more than 8,000 test results received by the Maine CDC from the previous day stood at 0.45 percent while the seven-day average positive rate was 0.6 percent, compared to a national average of 5 percent.

To date, the Maine CDC has tracked 5,215 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in mid-March. At least 140 people have died after contracting the virus but 4,478 individuals have recovered.

But new outbreaks have been reported this week in York County at Sanford High School and Sanford Regional Technical Center, the Sanford Wolves Club, Hussey Seating Company in North Berwick and the Ogunquit Beach Lobster House.

Shah said Thursday that the number of cases at Sanford High School had held steady at 12 but he urged all students, teachers and staff to get tested so epidemiologists could better determine the extent of the virus within the school.

The high school switched to all-online classes this week following the outbreaks at the school and in the community.

Some of the outbreaks in York County, including a large one at the county jail, have been linked to an Aug. 7 wedding and reception in Millinocket, located roughly 200 miles to the north. The number of total cases linked to that wedding held steady at 178 on Thursday.

York County has emerged as the coronavirus hotspot in Maine. Neighboring Cumberland County had been the virus epicenter in Maine all spring and for much of the summer but has only had a handful of days during the past month in which new cases climbed out of the single digits.

Thursday was one of those days as Maine CDC reported 11 additional cases in Cumberland County. Asked whether Maine CDC epidemiologists are seeing the virus spread from York County into Cumberland County, Shah said that is certainly a concern although it is too early to tell.

“We don’t know that with scientific precision yet but that is, again, our leading hypothesis as we start to see an increase in cases initially in Cumberland County but then also now, more recently, in Androscoggin County as well,” Shah said.

Political events held in Maine on Wednesday and Thursday are also drawing attention – and scrutiny.

President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., held a rally in Holden on Wednesday night and swung through Auburn on Thursday to stump for his father and other Republicans, including former state lawmaker Dale Crafts in his bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Media reports and social media posts show several hundred people attending the outdoor event in Holden, with the vast majority not wearing masks or physically distancing from each other. Executive orders issued by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills state that outdoor events should be limited to 100 people or less.

And in Auburn, Trump’s eldest son greeted about 80 people outside of Rolly’s Diner. According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, Trump shook hands with many people after the event and even posed for up-close-and-personal selfies while not wearing a mask.

The Trump campaign hopes to at least repeat its 2016 performance in Maine when the Republican picked up one of Maine’s four Electoral College votes by winning majority support in the 2nd Congressional District.

Asked about the rallies, Shah steered well clear of the politics of the event and said other agencies are responsible for enforcing Maine’s size limits on gatherings and other health requirements. But Shah urged everyone, regardless of the event, to take precautions such as wearing masks or keeping distance from others.

“It doesn’t matter for what purpose the gathering was organized or who is there,” Shah said. “What we’ve seen is whether it’s a wedding, whether it’s a funeral, whether it’s any type of place where people are together for a longer period of time in high density, COVID-19 can pass from person to person to person, potentially even generating outbreaks.”

The administration of Gov. Janet Mills announced Wednesday that residents of Massachusetts would no longer be required to receive a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 14 days in order to visit Maine because of falling infection rates there.

Other states with similar exemptions are New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

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