Yasmine Sanchez of York Hospital explains the COVID-19 test process to Ginger Doucette of Wells at the York Hospital Walk-in Care clinic in York on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Gov. Janet Mills and top state health officials pleaded with Mainers on Wednesday to follow public health rules as COVID-19 cases rise at a frightening rate, threatening to trigger the exponential growth that’s ravaging other states across the nation.

Mills implored Mainers to abide by health rules even in their own homes by ruling out large house parties, wearing masks when inviting guests over and staying at least 6 feet apart from non-family members.

“We know COVID-19 thrives on even the slightest hint of complacency among people,” Mills said at an afternoon media briefing. “Maine has done well, but we have to do better.”

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 87 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. There was a net increase of 76 cases because of probable cases from previous days that later tested negative.

The seven-day average of 53.8 cases is a new record, eclipsing the previous mark set in late May. The seven-day average has doubled in the last month and has nearly quadrupled since bottoming out at about 14 cases on Aug. 11.

“The levels of transmission we are seeing today could quickly turn into exponential growth,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.  Maine is seeing “increasing levels of transmission in communities across the state.”

Across the nation, the COVID-19 picture is dire, with a 39 percent increase in cases over the past two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker. The U.S. has had more than 9 million people fall ill with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and over 230,000 deaths.

In New Hampshire, which has a similar population to Maine, the state recorded 134 new cases on Wednesday. Cases have increased by 7 percent over the past week. Vermont had 30 new cases and an 8 percent weekly increase, while Massachusetts had 1,260 new cases and 5.2 percent case growth in the past week.

Asked whether Maine would set restrictions or delay the reopening of bars set for Monday, Mills said much of the transmission happening now is occurring at private gatherings, as opposed to outbreaks at public places or congregate care centers. If people “hunkered down” by being careful to avoid crowds, wear masks and wash hands often, Maine could still head off high levels of illness, she said.

“It’s not about my issuing an order today,” Mills said. “It’s about everybody using common sense and getting things under control.”

Although more virus cases are occurring independent of outbreaks, the Maine CDC is involved in at least 25 current outbreak investigations, according to agency spokesman Robert Long.

There have now been 6,387 confirmed or probable cases since March. No additional deaths were reported Wednesday, leaving the number of individuals who have died with COVID-19 at 146. Even though cases have been rising precipitously, there hasn’t been a COVID-19 related death in Maine in 11 days.

Politics became an issue Wednesday when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem lambasted Mills at a “Team Trump” bus tour stop in Bangor.

During the stop, Noem, a Republican, said she “would remind (Mills) that she overstepped her authority. Governors do not have the authority to put in the mandates that she did,” News Center Maine reported.

When asked about Noem’s comments, Mills, a Democrat, at first said she didn’t “want to talk politics,” but then launched into a critique of the South Dakota governor.

“The statistics in South Dakota give her no reason to brag, no reason to boast. I’m not going to give her advice, but I don’t think she’s in a good position to give us advice,” Mills said, folding her arms and leaning back in her chair.

South Dakota has the second-highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country, at 95.4 per 100,000 population, while Maine’s is the lowest in the nation at 3.1 per 100,000.

Also, when asked about a campaign stop by Donald Trump Jr. – anticipated Thursday evening in Hermon – Mills said she discourages large gatherings for any purpose, political or otherwise.

“The other day we reached out to the White House to see if they would like to converse and discuss with us what the ramifications are of large gatherings in Maine. That didn’t happen, we didn’t hear back from them,” Mills said.

The virus is spreading through every corner of Maine, including in Washington County. Calais Regional Hospital reported Tuesday on its Facebook page that “since Monday, Oct. 19 we have had 29 positive results through CRH testing, but additional cases in the community have been identified through testing at other organizations.”

The hospital reported 330 test results are pending, and the “swab and go” testing site at the hospital conducted a record 173 tests on Tuesday.

“Everyone has a part to play in keeping our community and our families safe and healthy and getting through this outbreak. Remain vigilant in the basics, wearing a mask, watching your distance and washing your hands,” the post read.

The Maine CDC on Tuesday reported an outbreak at Second Baptist Church in Calais, with 27 cases, up from four on Tuesday. The Maine Department of Education reported six cases at Calais Elementary School, resulting in the school going to online-only learning through Nov. 9.

In Rockland, the Woodlands Memory Care facility has 12 cases, including 10 residents and two staff members, the Maine CDC said.

South Portland High School now is reporting two cases of COVID-19, although the school department stressed that the two cases were unrelated to each other. Close contacts are being quarantined, although school is still open. In all Maine schools, there have been 121 COVID-19 cases reported, according to the DOE.

Hospitalizations are slowly rising, too, although not close to the level seen in May. As of Wednesday, 16 individuals were hospitalized, including seven in critical care. A week ago, there were seven people in the hospital – none in critical care.

The number of active cases – the total number of cases minus those who have recovered or died – rose to 800 on Wednesday. That’s up from 561 active cases just one month ago. There were 14 new cases in Cumberland County, 13 in York County and nine each in Knox and Washington counties, which have both been among the counties with the fewest cases to date. New cases were reported in all but two counties, Piscataquis and Sagadahoc.

Maine’s seven-day daily average for tests that have returned positive has also increased, from 0.49 a week ago to 0.75 on Wednesday. Lower positivity rates mean public health workers have a better chance to halt outbreaks by isolating people who test positive and quarantining close contacts. The U.S. positivity rate is 7.4 percent, up from about 5 percent a few weeks ago.

Despite the jump in cases, Maine is set to reopen bars on Monday with extra rules in place to limit the virus’ spread, although state health officials have said that they are closely examining that upcoming date. Bars in other states have been associated with COVID-19 outbreaks, and in Maine they are one of the last types of businesses to reopen.

The Maine Principals’ Association indefinitely delayed the high school winter sports season on Tuesday, saying it is working with state officials and educators to design COVID-19 safety protocols.

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