Federal officials on Wednesday said that states like Maine that are at medium or high risk of COVID-19 transmission should again think about requiring mask-wearing in public indoor settings, even in those areas where current guidelines suggest the rules could be relaxed.

Citing an increase in COVID-19 cases around the country, public health officials at a White House briefing said local officials also should increase access to testing and treatment in response to the sharp increase in COVID cases.

Enrique Sabater, left, and Francisco Fernandez both don surgical masks as they walk down Congress Street in downtown Portland on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Maine has been particularly hard-hit in the latest wave of infections, at one point leading the country in the rate at which the virus was spreading.

The outlook for much of the state has improved slightly in recent days and the latest figures show that people in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties are at medium risk of catching the illness. Aroostook, Piscataquis, Penobscot and Hancock counties remain in the high-risk category and officials say people in those counties should wear masks indoors.

On Wednesday, however, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said even people outside of high-risk zones should consider resuming mask-wearing because of the current surge in COVID cases.

“We urge local leaders to encourage use of prevention strategies like masks in public indoor settings and increasing access for testing and treatment,” Walensky said. She also said people in areas with medium levels of transmission should avoid crowds and test themselves, especially before gathering with others indoors.

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Walensky said most of the people living in high-risk areas are in the Northeast and Midwest, but previous waves “have demonstrated that this travels across the country,” she said.

And, she said, there’s been a steady increase in COVID cases in the past five weeks, although the real number is probably higher than the official counts because of people who test positive on home tests and don’t report those results to authorities.

She said the current seven-day average is 94,000 cases a day, an increase of 26 percent over the previous week and a three-fold increase over the last month.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent organization of Maine Medical Center, and the former director of the Maine CDC for 14 years, was practically gleeful at hearing that federal authorities want local officials to urge increased mask-wearing.

“It’s been very frustrating” to see mask mandates and recommendations drop, she said, because the federal assessment of risk levels is based, in part, on measures such as hospitalizations. Mills said it should be based on transmission rates because mask-wearing is designed to prevent catching COVID and not to mitigate the severity of a case after a person contracts the disease.

“How many people are in the hospital doesn’t logically trigger whether you mask or not,” she said.

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Mills said the current omicron subvariant spreading most rapidly through New England, BA.2.12.1, is a highly contagious strain and, with better masks now available, people should wear a mask, especially for indoor events. She said there are other steps people can take to minimize their risk of catching COVID. For example, she said she will be getting together with friends for Memorial Day weekend and they all have agreed to take a home test the day before.

The CDC’s statement Wednesday, Mills said, “is the right thing to do, to at least alert people” that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“I’ve been saying this for a few weeks now and I feel like I’m back in sync with them,” she said. “What we’ve experienced in New England and the mid-Atlantic the last weeks is really a bellwether” for the rest of the country.

The Maine CDC said late Wednesday that its recommendations “continue to align with those of the U.S. CDC” and that following those guidelines should help people limit their risk of catching COVID. The center also encouraged Mainers to stay up-to-date on vaccinations and boosters and have a plan with a medical provider to quickly get Paxlovid or other medications to reduce the risk of hospitalization if someone catches the virus.

The center also urged Mainers to order a third round of free at-home tests that the federal government announced this week.

Statistics released Wednesday show that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Maine dropped slightly but remains near a three-month high.

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There were 225 hospitalized patients as of Wednesday morning. That number reached 231 on Tuesday, the highest count since mid-February. While overall patient counts have more than doubled in recent weeks, the number of critically ill patients has remained stable. As of Wednesday, 34 patients were in critical care and two were on ventilators.

The Maine CDC also reported 812 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and one additional death. The seven-day daily average of new cases increased to 615.

Maine’s infection rate had been the highest in the nation this month, but dropped to the 10th-highest among all states on Wednesday. Maine recorded 316 cases for every 100,000 residents over the past seven days, compared to a nationwide infection rate of 199 cases per 100,000 people.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 256,958 cases and 2,337 deaths.

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