State officials are now investigating a third cluster of COVID-19 cases at a blueberry processing facility or farm in Maine.
Four employees hired by Wyman’s, one of the state’s largest wild blueberry producers, have tested positive, Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah said Tuesday. They were all assigned to a Wyman’s location in Milbridge, in Washington County
Last week, the state opened investigations at Hancock Foods in Ellsworth, which now has 10 cases, and Merrill Farms in Hancock, which has nine.
Shah said in each instance, workers were tested before they began work in any factory or field and everyone who has either tested positive or come into close contact with someone who did is now in quarantine in Bangor. The state believes proactive measures will keep numbers from spreading, but the clusters have exacerbated a workforce shortage among agricultural workers.
The latest cluster was among just 11 new cases of COVID-19 reported Tuesday, the lowest daily total in three weeks.
There have now been 3,975 cases in Maine, 3,548 confirmed by testing and 427 that are classified as probable. The number of active cases was 428 on Tuesday, 28 fewer than Monday. The state is still monitoring outbreaks at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where 14 cases have been documented, and at Marshwood Center, also in Lewiston, which has seen 23 cases among staff and residents.
No additional deaths were reported Tuesday and the state actually revised its total down by one from Monday to indicate that 123 people have died.
“As part of the investigation that Maine CDC does on all individuals with COVID-19, we determined that the death of the individual … did not meet the criteria to actually be a COVID 19 related death,” Shah explained.
The average number of new daily cases over the last 10 days is 22, compared to an average of 25 over the previous 10-day period. Cases peaked in Maine in late May, when the daily average topped 50. There was a slight spike in late June as well, when daily cases averaged near 40, but the numbers leveled off in July.
To date, more than 82 percent of all cases have come from Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties.
Hospital visits and emergency room visits with flu-like symptoms — two metrics the state uses to assess its response — remain low as well. As of Monday, there were 12 people hospitalized, three in critical care. Since the pandemic began, 388 people have been hospitalized in Maine at some point.
Shah also said Maine has continued to see a drop in positivity rate, which measures the number of positive tests against the number of tests conducted. Maine’s 7-day average rate reached a new low Tuesday of 0.87 percent. The national average is about 8 percent.
Despite all the positive numbers, Shah said he doesn’t believe Mainers should let up with precautions.
“We should be going about our lives here in Maine with the assumption that COVID-19 is all around us,” he said.
Shah addressed concerns about a number of out-of-state visitors to Mount Desert Island who have tested positive for COVID-19. He said he spoke at length Tuesday morning with Arthur Blank, president of MDI Hospital, which had fielded a number of calls from individuals. The hospital reported Monday that at least 35 out-of-state visitors carrying COVID-19 have been on the island at some point this summer and could have spread the disease in the community. Because of lengthy delays at the major national test processors, the people involved didn’t learn they had tested positive until they were already traveling in Maine.
Shah said the CDC has provided MDI Hospital with access to its online contact tracing program, called Sara Alert, to help identify and limit and possible spread. He also reiterated that visitors to Maine from other states should quarantine until they get their test results back.
“Our guidance is clear: If you are coming to Maine before you have a negative test result in hand, you should absolutely be quarantined,” he said. “If individuals follow that, the theoretical contacts with Maine people should be really low.”
Since the pandemic began, the Maine CDC has tracked 170 positive test results among out-of-state individuals, Shah said, although many of those individuals live in nearby New Hampshire and may receive health care in Maine.
Shah devoted several minutes of his briefing with media members Tuesday to talking about vaccines. He provided an update on the United States’ efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 that could be widely distributed and help develop herd immunity and eradicate the disease – drawing attention to two different vaccine trials that have shown promise.
“The goal … is to produce a viable vaccine as soon as possible, but no one knows when a vaccine will be fully developed and ready for rollout,” he said.
Shah said he hopes Mainers, adults and children alike, will get up-to-date on existing vaccines and encouraged everyone to seek out reputable sources of information on any COVID-19 vaccines in the coming months.