A woman sanitizes railings of the airstairs before President Trump used them to exit Air Force One at Bangor International Airport on June 5. While Maine recorded fewer new coronavirus cases over the past week, those cases likely don’t reflect any new infections that could have stemmed from large recent gatherings, including Black Lives Matter protests and Trump’s visit. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

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Several indicators of the spread of the coronavirus suggest that the deadly virus has declined in Maine over the past few weeks, although it is still too early to say whether recent large public gatherings might lead to an uptick in cases.

The number of new coronavirus cases declined over the past week, as did the share of tests coming back positive. Hospitalizations also continued to drop, with the number of patients currently hospitalized for coronavirus hitting the lowest level since the state started releasing data in mid-April.

Despite these positive indicators, there are still more than 500 known active cases of coronavirus in Maine, with 219 new confirmed cases over the past week, indicating that, despite the progress, the outbreak is by no means over.

The number of patients hospitalized for coronavirus fell to its lowest level since the state started releasing data. Hospitalization totals are seen as one marker of the spread of the disease that is largely independent from the level of testing because the patients with the most serious cases of coronavirus are likely to be hospitalized regardless of the state’s testing capacity.

Hospitalizations in Maine surged over Memorial Day weekend, driven by outbreaks at several long-term care facilities in the Portland area. But they have declined steadily since then. As of Wednesday, just 27 patients were currently hospitalized with the virus, the fewest since the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention started releasing such data in mid-April.

The number of new cases declined over the past week, even as the state continues to expand testing. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Maine surged in May as the state’s testing capacity rose. But while testing has continued to increase in recent weeks, the rate of new positive cases has declined, suggesting that the spread of the disease might be slowing.

Overall, more than 10,000 coronavirus tests were conducted in Maine over the past week, up slightly from previous weeks. But only 219 new cases were reported last week, including both confirmed and probable cases, down from 281 the previous week and 318 the week before that.

The increase in testing reflects the efforts of both private and state labs in Maine. In the month of April, Maine was testing fewer than 3,000 individuals per week, including both private labs and the Maine CDC lab in Augusta.

In early May, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a partnership with IDEXX, the Westbrook-based diagnostics company, which was billed as allowing the Maine CDC to run about 7,000 tests per week.

Testing will continue to expand, as the state announced Monday that another agreement with IDEXX will help the Maine CDC run an additional 25,000 tests per week in July, allowing anyone to get a test without a doctor’s order if they think they have been exposed to the virus.

The rate of positive tests also continues to drop. The percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive, known as the positivity rate, is one of the metrics the state uses to gauge whether current levels of testing are sufficient to detect the prevalence of the virus in the general population.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has said that the state aims to get the positivity rate below 2 percent. While the figure has yet to hit that level, it has continued to fall. Over the past week, the positivity was a little under 3 percent, bringing the state’s overall positivity rate since the start of the epidemic down to 4.6 percent.

One caveat to the declining positivity rate — and the decline in new cases — is that coronavirus is known to have an incubation period of up to two weeks, meaning that cases detected over the past week are likely indicative of people who caught the virus in May.

The first week of June was marked by the reopening of more establishments in Maine’s hardest-hit counties, as well as large crowds that gathered for anti-police brutality protests in many towns and to witness President Donald Trump’s visit to Guilford last Friday.

Potential coronavirus transmission due to this increased social contact would likely not be detected in the past week’s data. The Bangor Daily News will continue to monitor case counts, the positivity rate and other metrics in the coming weeks to evaluate whether these events — and others that may arise — affect the spread of the coronavirus in Maine.