Maine has purchased an additional 250,000 rapid COVID-19 tests for distribution to schools as a way to continue in-person learning while they await vaccinations for teachers and staff.

The BinaxNOW nasal swab tests yield results in about 15 minutes and will be available to teachers and students, but the goal is to enable surveillance testing of teachers who are close contacts of those who have contracted COVID-19. That surveillance, or serial, testing allows them to forgo the need for quarantine as long as they test negative, which will in turn alleviate staffing problems that have plagued some schools.

“Expanding COVID-19 testing in schools will further protect the health of Maine children, educators and school staff, along with their broader communities,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. “Quickly identifying cases and preventing outbreaks helps to keep schools and other settings safe, which is why testing is key to Maine’s effective strategy to limit the spread of COVID-19.”

Tuesday’s announcement came on the same day new COVID-19 cases in Maine fell below 100 for the first time in more than three months. The 91 new cases dropped the seven-day daily case average to 166 – from 323 cases just two weeks ago, which is one incubation period. This time last month, the daily average was 602 cases. Two additional deaths were reported Tuesday.

Although the decrease in case numbers is positive news, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah confirmed the second case of the COVID-19 variant known as B.1.1.7. in a York County resident who had recently traveled out of state. There is no known linkage between this individual and the Franklin County resident who last week was identified as the first case of B.1.1.7 in Maine.

“There are reasons for optimism on the horizon,” said Shah, noting that hospitalizations and deaths are trending down as well while vaccinations continue steadily. “The reason why my optimism is not unqualified is because of these new variants.”

Researchers believe the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom and is more transmissible, could become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States by late March.

Tom Walsh reviews an assignment with students seated behind plexiglass dividers while teaching a sociology class at Falmouth High School in October. The Maine CDC will be offering rapid COVID-19 tests to schools to help them stay open safely and reduce virus transmission. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The announcement on increased testing for schools was a tacit acknowledgement that it will still be many weeks before teachers are vaccinated. Education Commissioner Pender Makin said Maine’s plan remains to prioritize vaccination for those at the highest risk of death, which is older residents and those with serious health conditions.

“All educators completely understand that,” Makin said.

Right now, Mainers 70 and older are being prioritized in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan. After that, eligibility will open up to those 65-69 and then to certain front-line workers, which may or may not include teachers. No final decisions have been made.

In announcing the increased rapid testing, Makin and Lambrew pointed out that there has been limited spread of COVID-19 in Maine schools, which have adopted strict masking and physical distancing strategies. The rate of new cases among students and staff is less than half the statewide average and, as of Feb. 11, only 33 (or 5 percent) of Maine’s 610 schools had open outbreaks.

The Maine School Board Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association both supported the testing expansion in written statements. Eighty schools across the state already use the rapid tests, which require a waiver and nurses to administer.

“School boards across Maine have valued and supported the efforts of their schools to safely provide for their students and school community members,” said Maine School Board Association Executive Director Steve Bailey. “We commend Maine’s thoughtful and scientific approach that stays the course and adds additional support for testing, because we know that Maine’s strategies are working.”

Tuesday marked the seventh time in the last 10 days that new cases have been below 200. Maine’s seven-day testing positivity rate of 1.57 percent is the lowest it has been since early November. The decrease in new cases is in line with national trends. According to data kept by Johns Hopkins University, the average number of daily new cases in the U.S. dipped below 100,000 this week for the first time in months after topping out near 250,000 in early January.

In Maine, there have been 651 deaths and 42,768 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state a little over 11 months ago.

The number of people hospitalized in Maine with COVID-19 also decreased to 92 on Tuesday morning, the lowest total since Nov. 21. Of those, 24 are in intensive care and 11 are on ventilators. Maine reached a peak of 207 people in the hospital on Jan. 13. Since last March, 1,487 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 at some point.

Hospitalizations also have been steadily dropping across the country, from a peak of about 130,000 in early January to roughly half that this week, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

The steady drop in new cases and hospitalizations comes as vaccinations continue to ramp up. As of Tuesday morning, 176,892 individuals had received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, a little more than 13 percent of the state’s population. Of those, 73,021 people, about 5.4 percent of Maine residents, had received both doses.

Among first doses, 82,845, or 47 percent, have been given to individuals 70 and older, while of the two-dose total just 12,093, about 17 percent, went to those 70 or older.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it has increased the amount of weekly vaccine doses to states by 2 million for next week. Shah said he’s hopeful Maine will receive more doses but said nothing had been finalized yet. Some states were warned that a series of winter storms might cause delays in some shipments, but Shah doesn’t believe Maine will be affected.

In addition to another likely increase in vaccine doses, Shah said there will be a slight change in reporting for Pfizer doses. Since that vaccine was approved, the individual vials that are supposed to contain five doses of the vaccine actually contain six. That will be reflected in next week’s vaccine data, Shah said.

The extra doses have been going into people’s arms, they just weren’t being accounted for properly.

As vaccinations continue, Shah said Mainers shouldn’t let their guard down yet. He explained that what Maine and other states are seeing with the B.1.1.7 variant is similar to how COVID-19 originally arrived last March – slowly and among people with a history of travel. The real test will be when a case is detected in someone with no travel history.

“We’re replaying that same tape, this time with the variants,” he said.

The major difference this time, though, is the arrival of vaccines, which experts hope will help stave off another major surge in cases.

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