Coronavirus

Maine conforms with new CDC guidance on masking in schools, indoor settings

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On July 28, Gov. Janet Mills announced updates to Maine’s recommendations for wearing face coverings in indoor settings. The state is following recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rather than setting its own policies.

Current U.S. CDC guidance recommends all people, even those who are fully vaccinated, wear face coverings in indoor, public settings in areas that have “substantial” or “high” levels of community transmission. A community’s transmission level is determined by the number of cases per 100,000 people from the previous seven days and the percentage of tests with a positive result in the same time period.

At the time the announcement was made, York and Piscataquis counties had “substantial” levels of transmission and under the U.S. CDC guidelines were therefore advised to wear masks indoors. Because there is no active state of emergency, this policy is a recommendation and the state cannot force anyone to follow it.

However, the U.S. CDC updated its county map on the evening of July 28, moving York and Piscataquis to the “moderate” transmission category and elevating Waldo county into the “substantial” transmission category.

On Twitter, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah explained the change occurred because the U.S. CDC is updating its county map daily. At a press conference held earlier on July 28, Shah said the map would be updated weekly. 

The change in county status, which quickly created confusion, illustrates a point Shah made during a press conference, held jointly with Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew. Shah stated that the low population count in some Maine counties means small fluctuations in case numbers can result in large shifts in their level of transmission.

In the same press conference, Shah stated the change in mask recommendations is a result of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is believed to be nearly twice-as contagious as other strains. It is believed the Delta variant accounts for 47% of new cases in Maine.

Shah further explained that because vaccinated people can transmit COVID-19, they should wear masks in case they expose someone who is too young to be vaccinated, immunocompromised, or who has chosen not to be vaccinated.

Maine’s adoption of the U.S. CDC’s recommendation that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors reverses statements made by Mills months ago. In June, as Maine’s state of emergency was ending, Mills stated vaccinated people did not need to wear masks. Asked whether the reversal in policy had the potential to contribute to vaccine hesitancy or undermine the credibility of public health officials, Shah’s office stated the updated recommendation is based on the latest information. 

They characterized the change in guidance as a revision, not a reversal, and stated that public health information needs to shift to align with the latest science as it evolves. 

Current U.S. CDC guidelines not only call for mask wearing indoors in counties with high transmission rates, they also recommend that all teachers, staff, and students in K-12 schools wear face coverings, regardless of county transmission level or vaccination status. 

At the July 28 joint press conference, DHHS Commissioner Lambrew announced a partnership between her agency and the Maine Department of Education (DOE).  As well as recommending universal masking in schools, DHHS will be partnering with the DOE to promote vaccination of students, teachers, administrators.

The plan to promote vaccinations in schools has three parts. The first part involves launching school-based vaccine clinics. The Maine CDC will use an online survey and application process to connect interested schools with hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other medical services offering vaccinations. 

As part of the same program, DHHS is also hosting a free webinar, led by Director Shah, for school leaders in order to promote vaccine education. As part of the effort, DHHS and the Maine CDC will also distribute letters providing information on COVID-19, the vaccine, and how to get vaccinated to school administrators, parents and guardians, and community health care providers. The Maine CDC will also attempt to reach out to youth by posting educational messages on social media.

The third part of the plan involves collecting and posting school vaccination rates. Beginning September 1, DHHS will collect school staff vaccination rates on a monthly basis, to be posted mid-month. The reporting will include not just public and charter schools, but private schools and career and technical schools. DHHS will post vaccination rates of students aged 19 and younger mid-August and will post the information every two weeks. 

Prior to the July announcement, the DOE had already adopted the U.S. CDC’s recommendations for COVID-19, replacing the state-specific document it used during the previous school year. Several school districts had also announced their intention to let the decision about whether students would wear masks be made by parents and guardians. Whether those decisions will change on the back of the state adopting the U.S. CDC guidance is unclear. Because there is no state of emergency, the state has no authority to force schools to follow the guidance.

During the previous school year, Maine schools experienced one of the biggest enrollment drops in the nation over concerns about the virus and the mitigation measures put in place by schools. Maine DHHS did not return a request for comment about whether she is concerned the new guidance will have a similar effect on school enrollment numbers for the upcoming school year.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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