A sign directs people to the former Bangor testing station at Bass Park in March 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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A testing acquisition the governor described as a “game changer” could help Maine hit goals outlined by health officials as benchmarks for economic reopening, though effects on summer tourism are less clear and the state has performed fewer tests than most on a per-capita basis.

Gov. Janet Mills announced on Thursday that a partnership with the Westbrook-based firm IDEXX would allow the state to conduct an additional 5,000 tests per week in addition to the 2,000 that the state laboratory was previously capable of and others conducted in private labs.

Mills said the surge would allow the state to eliminate a testing prioritization system in which state testing was largely reserved for health care workers, individuals in congregate living settings and patients with preexisting conditions. She also said the expanded capacity would lead her administration to update the state’s plan to reopen the economy “very soon.”

An increase of 5,000 tests per week would allow Maine to test around 1,100 people per day, putting the state well over an estimate developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute for the number of tests the state would need to test everyone with symptoms and their close contacts, a marker of what might be necessary for a safe reopening. Both the institute and the White House identified Maine as one of a handful of states where testing capacity was an issue.

Through Wednesday, Maine had performed 23,266 tests for the coronavirus, according to state data. That means the state has tested roughly 17 out of 1,000 people, putting Maine in the lower third of U.S. states in testing on a per capita basis, according to data compiled by the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Fewer than 3,000 tests per week were conducted in Maine for each of the past three weeks, according to state data.

The states that have tested for coronavirus the most include hard-hit states such as New York and Massachusetts, partially because states with higher case counts were a priority for the federal government’s distributions of supplies.

Testing numbers released by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of tests performed in the state slowed in mid-April as Maine, like many other states, struggled to find sufficient supplies of a chemical reagent used in the tests.

Mills said on Thursday that the additional testing was about ensuring Maine residents who experienced symptoms could get a test, declining to get into specifics about what changes to economic and business restrictions might be coming.

The increase still leaves the state a ways away from what would be needed to test anywhere near a normal volume of summer tourists, one strategy that has been floated as an alternative to a mandated 14-day quarantine for visitors slated to last into the summer. During the summer of 2019, Maine received nearly 29 million visitors, according to the state tourism office, or an average of more than 200,000 arrivals per day from May through August.

In the meantime, an increase in testing might increase the count of positive cases, acknowledged Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine CDC, on Thursday. Maine saw its biggest single-day spike of 76 cases on Thursday in part due to universal testing at a Tyson Foods Facility in Portland, where there were 39 new cases.

Shah said the key figure would be the percentage of tests that come back as positive. About 5 percent of tests in Maine have come back positive since the outbreak began, according to state data, and that rate has stayed roughly steady over the past few weeks. That is already a lower positive rate than most states.

“That’s evidence that more and more tests are being done, which is evidence that the net we are casting, the look we are taking at the state is getting wider,” Shah said.

Watch: Janet Mills announces partnership to triple testing capacity

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