MEDIA RELEASE: Mills Administration Updates COVID-19 School Health Advisory System

For Immediate Release

Androscoggin, Kennebec, Oxford and Somerset counties yellow; Franklin and York counties closely monitored
Administration launches new school testing program. 

AUGUSTA — The Mills Administration today released an update to its color-coded Health Advisory System that classifies counties’ relative risk of COVID-19 transmission to assist schools as they continue with their efforts to deliver instruction and support students safely.  

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) assessed COVID-19 data and trends for all counties and released the following designations: 

  • YELLOW:  Androscoggin has experienced a sharp rise in cases over the last two weeks, with a new case rate more than double the statewide average. Kennebec, Oxford and Somerset counties all have new case rates that exceed the state average, and both Oxford and Somerset counties have two-week positivity rates that exceed the state average.  
  • CLOSELY MONITOR:  Franklin County has a rising new case rate and York County’s positivity rate is increasing.  
  • All other counties remain green.   

These designations are made out of an abundance of caution and for the consideration of school administrative units in their decisions to deliver instruction. DHHS and Maine 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 for school staff and students has risen to 45 per 10,000, but remains about 40 percent lower than a new case rate of 74 per 10,000 for the general population.   

This continues to demonstrate that in-person learning in schools that follow public health precautions can be conducted safely, without increased transmission of COVID-19, when schools use proven health and safety protocols and resources. 

The Health Advisory System categorizations are defined as follows: 

  • RED: Categorization as “red” suggests that the county has a high risk of COVID-19 spread and that in-person instruction is not advisable.
  • YELLOW: Categorization as “yellow” suggests that that the county has an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread and that schools may consider additional precautions and/or hybrid instructional models to reduce the number of people in schools and classrooms at any one time. 
  • GREEN: Categorization as “green” suggests that the county has a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and that schools may consider in-person instruction, as long as they are able to implement the required health and safety measures.  Schools in a “green” county may need to use hybrid instruction models if there is insufficient capacity or other factors (facilities, staffing, geography/transportation, etc.) that may prevent full implementation of the health and safety requirements. 

The county-level assessments are based on both quantitative and qualitative data, including but not limited to recent case rates, positivity rates, and syndromic data (e.g., symptoms of influenza or COVID-19). Those data are publicly posted every week on the Maine CDC website. DHHS and Maine CDC also consider qualitative factors, such as the presence of outbreaks that may potentially affect school-age children. 

The Health Advisory System reflects ongoing analysis of evolving data, and serves as one piece of information that school and district leaders can use to make decisions about how to deliver education during the school year. The qualitative and quantitative considerations and data used by the CDC in determining community transmission risk levels for schools can be located here: How County Risk Levels for Maine Schools are Determined 

The Health Advisory System can be found on the Maine DOE website in Part I of the Framework for Reopening Schools and Returning to In-Person Classroom Instruction: https://www.maine.gov/doe/framework/part-I

Maine schools have been safely open since the fall by adhering to the six requirements for returning to in-person instruction and by following the protocols for identifying close contacts that are found in the Standard Operating Procedure for a positive case in schools, regardless of their county color designation. Additionally, many schools have utilized BinaxNOW rapid antigen testing, provided at no cost to the schools through Maine DHHS, to quickly confirm and isolate positive cases in schools, and some schools are piloting expanded use of the tests in the coming weeks.  

COVID-19 testing remains critical to identify infected individuals early, often before symptoms appear. As such, Maine DHHS and Maine Department of Education (DOE) announced a new  pooled PCR testing program that will launch in May, which will be available to any PK-12 school administrative unit or private school.  

Pooled PCR testing allows schools to test large groups of students and staff on a weekly basis. Pooled testing involves collecting swabs from small groups of students, usually students in a class cohort or homeroom, combining the test samples in a “batch” or “pool,” and then testing the pooled sample with a PCR test. If pool results are positive, the individuals in that pool are retested using BinaxNOW or PCR testing. The positive individual(s) would then be sent home in order to begin their isolation period and limit the number of additional people infected. 

Maine DHHS and DOE have invited school and school administrative unit leaders and school nurses to attend one of two informational webinars on the pool testing program next week to learn about adopting  this strategy  for the remainder of the current school year, summer programming as well as the 2021-2022 school year.  

Maine people can help keep schools safe by following the health and safety precautions, including wearing masks, keeping physical distance and practicing hand hygiene. They can also help keep schools safe by  following Maine’s travel guidelines, including testing and quarantining for unvaccinated people who have visited certain states. Please be sure to communicate with school leaders about any travel, symptoms, or questions.  

The next update will be provided on May 7, 2021. Updating this advisory on a two-week basis aligns with the incubation period for COVID-19 and allows for greater stability in the trend data for small counties.   

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