Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday that she’s directing her staff to review new federal guidelines that call for everyone in high transmission areas to wear a mask in public indoor settings and for everyone in schools to mask up as well, regardless of their vaccination status.

“I expect that review to be completed tomorrow, at which point we will announce what changes, if any, will be made to our current public health recommendations here in Maine,” Mills said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. “In the meantime, we continue to strongly urge all Maine people to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated. It is the best and most effective way to protect your health and that of your family, friends, and communities.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, seemed to indicate in a series of social media posts Tuesday that he endorsed the new U.S. CDC guidance, which comes amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases that has kept the pandemic from receding.

“If you’re in a public, indoor space, consider masking up, especially in a higher transmission county,” Shah tweeted. “If you’re in a school, everyone – teachers, staff, students, and visitors – should mask up, regardless of vaccination.”

During the day Tuesday, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long declined to answer questions about how the state would react to the new federal guidance, saying he was deferring to a statement from the governor, who issued her statement after 5 p.m. He did not respond to a follow up email Tuesday night.

The U.S. CDC’s announcement Tuesday reverses earlier guidance and recommends that vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors in areas with “substantial and high transmission,” especially those who live with or are in close contact with immunocompromised individuals or unvaccinated people, including children under the age of 12.

The announcement met with mixed reactions among health care providers, educators, business leaders and others in Maine.

According to the CDC’s definition – more than 50 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days – York and Piscataquis counties are categorized as areas with substantial transmission. Maine’s 14 remaining counties all have moderate transmission. Nearly all counties in southern states, where vaccination rates are lowest, have high transmission.

The CDC also formally recommended that teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

What impact the new guidelines will have is unclear. Since May, guidance has been that vaccinated individuals do not need masks because of the protection afforded by vaccines. The U.S. CDC has still recommended that unvaccinated people continue wearing masks in crowded public settings, but no one is enforcing that policy and masks have become increasingly rare even as cases spike.

One major factor in the CDC’s updated guidance was research that shows vaccinated people infected with the delta variant have the same viral load as those who are unvaccinated. That means even though vaccinated individuals are far less likely to get sick, they can still transmit the virus easily.

TIMING IS GOOD FOR SCHOOLS

School officials have faced challenges in adopting policies on masking, especially since many students are not yet eligible for vaccines.

The U.S. CDC had previously relaxed guidance for masking in schools, saying on July 9 that vaccinated teachers and students no longer needed to wear masks inside school buildings. The Maine Department of Education also adopted that guidance, which said masks were still strongly recommended for unvaccinated staff and students.

In Gorham, the district has continued to require masks in K-8 summer programs due to a lack of vaccines for children under 12. Superintendent Heather Perry said Tuesday that she was surprised by the new guidance coming so closely on the heels of the July 9 recommendations, but said it is timely as schools around Maine prepare to finalize their fall plans. For now it won’t change anything for summer programming.

“It certainly provides some clarity for superintendents as we’re looking to develop those rules and guidelines for the opening of school,” Perry said.

In Portland, Superintendent Xavier Botana said current protocols already include masking indoors when students are present.

“It will likely continue that way into the next school year,” Botana said in an email.

Guidance for the fall will be on the Portland school board’s agenda for next Tuesday, and the board will be asked to approve fall plans on Aug. 17. The first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 31.

Meanwhile, state health officials reported on Tuesday 172 new cases of COVID-19 for the three-day period from Saturday through Monday, adding to an increasing level of new virus transmission. One additional death also was reported.

Maine’s new COVID-19 cases include cases for Saturday, Sunday and Monday, as the state no longer processes tests over the weekend. The new figure continues an upward trend. The seven-day daily case average, which has been rising steadily for about a month, now sits at 64 cases after bottoming out at about 14 cases on average at the beginning of the month.

Case counts are far greater than they were last summer, when people were more cautious about large gatherings and wore masks in many public settings.

The same trend is playing out across the country and is even worse in some areas where the highly transmissible delta variant has taken hold. The seven-day average in the U.S. is about 42,000 cases, up from 12,000 cases this time last month. Some states, such as Florida, are being especially hard hit.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, believes the updated mask guidance is prudent and could have some impact, even if it’s not a mandate.

“I think there are people who have wanted to (wear masks) but have felt uncomfortable because no one else is,” he said.

He said while the virus is still circulating widely, breakthrough infections in vaccinated people can happen.

“Everyone who gets infected could be the source of a new variant, maybe even one that eludes our vaccinations,” Jarvis said. “This is how viruses work. Masks help to prevent the spread, we’ve known that.”

BUSINESSES IN A GRAY AREA

Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine, which represents the state’s food and lodging industry, doesn’t see much changing without a mandate.

“Everything that our businesses had to go through last year and earlier this year was under a state of emergency,” he said. “Without that mechanism, I think that’s going to create some confusion. Recommendations are really gray areas.”

Dugal said businesses aren’t equipped, and shouldn’t be, to police mask wearing. The same is true, he said, of vaccination status.

“I’ve not been looking forward to this,” he said. “You knew something was going to happen.”

It’s not clear whether Mills would need to declare another state of emergency in order to implement any new mask guidance.

Reaction to the new CDC guidance among Maine residents was mixed but mostly supportive.

“Absolutely (the recommendation is good),” said Mariah Baribeau, 34, of Topsham outside the Hannaford there. “I am a firm believer in leading by example, and the more people see you wearing a mask, the more they will wear a mask themselves.”

Baribeau lives with her parents, who are immunocompromised but vaccinated, and her daughter, who is not. She said living with vulnerable people is part of the reason she still wears her mask indoors.

Michael Page, 68, of West Bath, wasn’t wearing a mask on Tuesday, but said he’d have no problem abiding by the new recommendation.

Outside L.L. Bean in Freeport, most people were unmasked.

“I think it should be up the person (whether or not to wear a mask),” said Andrea Roupp, who’s visiting Maine from Pennsylvania.

Janet Brogan, who lives in Connecticut but is visiting her brother in Gorham, supports the guidance.

“I think it should be nationwide, the more we share germs, the more (the virus) mutates, and the more there are variants. Masks are a small effort to protect society,” said Brogan, a public health nurse.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 70,076 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 and 898 deaths, according to data tracked by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitalizations – which had been stable – have started to creep back up. As of Tuesday, there were 33 individuals in the hospital with COVID-19, an increase of eight in the last week. Of those, 18 were in critical care.

VACCINATION RATE FLAT

Vaccinations, on the other hand, have slowed way down in Maine and across the country, although there are small signs demand might be increasing. In all, Maine has administered 807,564 final doses of COVID-19 vaccine, covering just over 60 percent of all residents and about 68 percent of eligible residents age 12 and older.

For the week ending Saturday, July 24, Maine averaged 1,299 shots per day, which is an increase from 1,164 shots per day on average the week prior.

Despite Maine’s high rate of vaccination rate overall many parts of the state lag. While 72 percent of Cumberland County’s residents have been vaccinated, nine counties have rates below 55 percent, including two – Somerset and Piscataquis – that still haven’t reached 50 percent.

The geographic disparities are even more stark in rural areas. Among those between 16 and 39, 70 percent of those in Cumberland County have been fully vaccinated, which is close to the overall rate. However, in five mostly rural counties – Somerset, Piscataquis, Franklin, Washington and Oxford – the rate among 16- to 39-year-olds is less than 40 percent.

Public health officials continue to stress the importance of vaccinations, even as hesitancy has hardened into hostility for some. The overwhelming majority of all new deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have been among unvaccinated individuals.

Jarvis at Northern Light said regardless of any changes in mask policy, he hopes the recent surge leads to more vaccinations. He didn’t have current numbers available Tuesday, but said nearly everyone who has been hospitalized in recent weeks has been unvaccinated.

Asked if he’s frustrated about the direction the state and country are heading back toward, Jarvis said yes.

“People always have the choice to heed advice, but when we see the spread of misinformation, that really frustrates people in public health,” he said.

Staff Writers Rachel Ohm and Diego Lasarte contributed to this report.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.