The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says it will no longer investigate probable cases of COVID-19 in individuals who haven’t tested positive even if they have had contact with someone who has.

The agency announced the policy change in an email sent Wednesday afternoon following the news briefing attended by CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, Gov. Janet Mills and Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

“Going forward, Maine CDC will investigate probable cases of COVID-19 only in individuals with a positive laboratory result,” CDC spokesman Robert Long said in the email. “This change means that Maine CDC will no longer investigate symptomatic close contacts of COVID-19 cases as probable cases, unless they receive a positive test result.”

The investigations into probable cases have been used to try to determine the source of the virus and alert others who may have had close contact with a positive case. The state defines a close contact as any person who was within 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for 15 or more minutes.

Under the state’s new policy, it will not investigate people who are showing symptoms of the virus unless they test positive. People who receive a positive antigen test result will continue to be investigated by Maine CDC.

During the news briefing, Shah said the onset of cold and flu season is likely leading to the increase in probable cases of COVID-19 being reported across the state because cold and flu symptoms are similar to those for COVID-19: fever, runny nose, difficulty breathing. He said flu season was forcing the CDC to evaluate its policy going forward.

“We’ve got to make sure we are focusing our resources on those individuals who are most likely to have COVID,” said Shah, who encouraged people who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, a cold or a flu to take advantage of the state’s testing system.

In the email Wednesday evening announcing the change, Long said people with symptoms should stay home and avoid all public interaction. Anyone who believes they have been exposed to the virus should immediately begin quarantining.

The state’s decision to change the way it investigates probable cases makes sense given the surge in COVID-19 cases across Maine and limited state resources, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, Maine Medical Center’s parent and Northern New England’s largest healthcare provider.

“It seems like a very reasonable step to take. Other states have done the same,” Mills, a former director of the Maine CDC and the sister of Gov. Janet Mills, said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “The state has recognized that they have staffing limitations. You need to spend those resources where they can be most effective, on positive cases.”

Mills said that while contact tracing is a valuable tool, the volume of positive cases is making it difficult to investigate every person who may have had close contact with a person infected with the virus. She said it makes sense to focus limited resources on those individuals who have tested positive.

In an interview with the Portland Press Herald in August, Mills predicted that the state would see a surge in COVID-19 cases because several events were about to converge in the fall. Those included the resumption of interscholastic sports competition, businesses reopening, universities and K-12 schools opening, and the coming of cold weather and flu season.

“Think of the pandemic like a fire, and each of these things – increased economic activity, the reopening of colleges, the reopening of K-12 schools, the coming of cold weather season when we all head indoors and flu season – is a fuel being added to that fire,” Mills told the Press Herald in August. “If you add too much fuel, too fast, we could get burned.”

While the change in the investigation protocol means it’s likely that the state will report fewer “probable” cases of the virus each day, “this is not an indication that the risk has lessened,” Shah said.

The agency said a recent increase in COVID-19 cases means the Maine CDC may no longer be able to contact people to alert them to a positive result within 24 hours. While they wait for results, those people who have been tested should isolate immediately; notify an employer that you cannot go into work; get in touch with close contacts and suggest they get tested; and call a health care provider with medical questions.

The Maine CDC said it has more than 130 people working on COVID-19 case investigations and contact tracing and it recently reassigned more than 25 staff members to work on investigations and tracing. The agency also said that more staff members are being trained for the work and about 20 members of the Maine National Guard are joining the investigation and tracing teams.

The flu vaccine for the 2020-21 season is now widely available. The state recommends that anyone older than 6 months get vaccinated. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect. As of Saturday, Nov. 14, there had been 11 confirmed cases of influenza in Maine.

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