A man walks past outdoor dining structures on Union Street in Portland on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine cleared all 16 of its counties for in-person learning Friday in an update of the state’s color-coded school reopening advisory system that came as case numbers continue to decline and additional doses of the vaccine are expected to arrive next week.

Every county in Maine is now “green” in the school advisory system, meaning in-person instruction can be offered as long as health and safety requirements are followed. Four counties – Androscoggin, Franklin, Oxford and York – had been designated “yellow,” meaning hybrid instruction was recommended.

Gov. Janet Mills also issued an executive order Friday providing greater flexibility on gathering limits for houses of worship, which may now accommodate five people per 1,000 square feet or up to 50 people, whichever is greater.

Improving health metrics spurred the changes Friday, when the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 201 new cases of coronavirus. In total there have been 42,259 cases reported statewide since the pandemic began, including 33,713 confirmed cases and 8,546 probable. A total of 643 people have died, including two whose deaths were reported Friday.

New cases were reported in every Maine county, with 55 in Cumberland County and 44 in York County. Androscoggin County had 27 new cases and Penobscot County 21.

 

Maine is expected to receive an extra 1,000 doses of vaccine next week, for a total of 22,475 doses, adding to the cautious optimism created by the state’s declining case numbers. The seven-day average of new cases continues to fall, dropping to 209 cases per day on Friday, compared to 284 one week ago and 538 one month ago.

Though the report Wednesday that the United Kingdom variant of the virus had arrived in Maine is a cause for concern because it is more transmissible, state officials said on Thursday that Maine is well-positioned to detect the strain known as B.1.1.7 because of its partnership with The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, which conducts the genomic sequencing necessary to identify the variant.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC continue to review evidence that indicates lower transmission of COVID-19 in schools compared to the general population. Over the last 30 days, the rate of new cases in schools is 36 per 10,000 staff and students, compared to 81 per 10,000 people statewide. “Evidence continues to demonstrate that in-person learning in schools that follow public health precautions can be conducted safely without increased transmission of COVID-19,” the Department of Education said in a news release.

The U.S. CDC also released similar findings Friday in updated guidance on school reopenings that said schools can safely reopen with the proper risk mitigation strategies in place, such as universal mask wearing and physical distancing. Hybrid learning or reduced attendance may be used as a way to maximize physical distancing or when community transmission levels are elevated. The guidance also states that while teachers should be prioritized among front-line workers in vaccine plans, access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.

While the designation of every county as green indicates in-person instruction in Maine is possible, many districts are choosing hybrid models in order to keep within the state’s safety requirements for schools, which include maintaining 6 feet of distance between adults and 3 feet between students, as well as other measures such as mask wearing and daily symptom checks.

At the same time, the improving metrics are prompting some school districts to re-evaluate how much in-person learning they’re offering. The Brunswick School Board recently decided to increase in-person learning for high school students from one day per week to two, with a tentative start date of March 1, and the Portland school district said this week it is exploring adding in-person classes for 10th- through 12th-graders, who are currently remote.

The state typically updates the school advisory system every two weeks and the next update is expected on Feb. 26. The last time all counties were green was the week of Oct. 16.

The gathering limit for houses of worship is a change from the previous limit of 50 people and brings houses of worship in line with the requirements for retail spaces. Critical public health measures such as requirements to wear face coverings and stay at least 6 feet apart remain in effect.

Other updates from the administration Friday include new guidance for performing arts venues and for seated food and drink service to allow for expanded singing opportunities in certain circumstances, with public health protocols such as mask wearing and physical distancing. The DOE also updated its choral guidance for schools to allow for indoor singing with the requirement that masks be worn at all times in rehearsal rooms.

Meanwhile, more than 226,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered in Maine to date, including 162,662 first doses and 63,522 final doses. About 43 percent, or roughly 71,000 of the first doses administered have gone to residents 70 and older as the state continues to finish Phase 1A of its vaccination plan, which also includes health care workers, public safety employees, and residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

The governor, who is 73, received her second and final dose of the vaccine Friday after receiving her first dose Jan. 15. Maine is expected to begin vaccinating those 65 to 69 early next month.

“We are working day and night to deploy whatever vaccine we get from the federal government as quickly as possible to every corner of the state,” Mills said in a news release. “Our strategy right now is focused on saving lives, and the data tells us that folks who are 70 and older are most at risk of dying if they contract COVID. This is why we are taking the limited doses we receive and trying to get them into the arms of these folks as fast as we can. I remain grateful to the people of Maine for their patience amid this unprecedented undertaking and continue to urge all Maine people to wear a mask and watch their distance. Doing so will protect others and help us get back to normal sooner.”

The two deaths reported Friday were both men, one from Cumberland County and the other from Penobscot County. One was between 50 and 59 years old and the other was 80 or older.

A total of 102 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 Friday, including 24 in critical care and nine on ventilators. Hospitalizations tend to lag case numbers but have also seen a downward trend in recent weeks with overall numbers currently at their lowest levels since before Thanksgiving.

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