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Coronavirus continues to spread across much of the United States. Florida, for example, had the largest number of cases recorded in one day, 15,300 on Saturday. Looking at maps of coronavirus cases, Maine stands out. It is one of only two states (the other is New Hampshire) where the number of new cases of the virus is declining.
We realize this good news could change at any moment, that coronavirus has disproportionately hit minority communities in Maine and that there have been severe economic consequences of the measures put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus. Yet, it is worth taking time to consider what Maine has done well.
Public health and medical experts agree that Mainers deserve credit for largely taking warnings about the virus seriously and modifying their behavior to minimize its spread.
“It has really taken everyone’s effort to do the right thing,” said Jennifer Gunderman, an epidemiologist, public health expert and assistant clinical professor at the University of New England.
That includes individuals who changed their social plans, churches that revamped their services, nonprofits that shifted their funding and focus to COVID-19, private entities that partnered with the state to increase testing capacity, hospitals that worked together to respond to the new illness and many others.
Melissa Maginnis, a virologist and chair of the University of Maine’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Board, also gives credit to Mainers’ propensity to follow rules and to help one another. Quickly closing schools and ordering people to stay at home as much as possible were also big factors in reducing the spread of coronavirus here.
She also credits the conservative and early response from Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Their quick action to begin locking down the state, including recommendations to cancel events, to socially distance and limit travel and gatherings, which came as the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Maine, did a lot to prevent a larger outbreak of the virus, Maginnis said.
“They were focused on transmission and science, not following an arbitrary timeline,” she said, noting that the governor slowed some business reopenings when the virus was still on the rise in Maine.
From the March 15 declaration of a state of emergency to her phased reopening plan (which has been amended several times as case numbers have risen and fallen), the governor has navigated the difficult choices between acting too harshly and being too passive against a new and unpredictable illness.
Last month, during a roundtable to discuss commercial fishing, President Donald Trump criticized Mills’ coronavirus response, criticizing her for not allowing business to reopen more quickly.
“You have a governor that doesn’t know what she’s doing, and she’s like a dictator, you know?” Trump said at the June 5 event.
Recent data suggest that Mills, in fact, does know what she is doing.
Maine is one of only five states to be in the “trending better” category, according to the Covid Exit Strategy, a nonpartisan effort by a group of public health experts. The group uses several metrics, including case counts and hospital and testing capacity, for its ratings. The other states in the “trending better” category are Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Maine had the largest drop in COVID-19 cases over the prior 14 days, according to the tracker.
Also, Maine has the lowest estimated virus reproductive rate in the country at 0.82, according to the rt.live website, a nonpartisan, nonprofit site that draws on data from the Covid Tracking Project. The reproductive rate, R(t), is a measure of how likely an infection is to spread. Maine is one of only eight states with a rate below 1, a sign that control measures are working and that coronavirus cases are not spreading.
Mills, of course, has had some help.
For one, Maine’s dispersed population — the state’s largest city has fewer than 70,000 residents — was a significant factor in slowing the spread of coronavirus, said James Jarvis, the director of clinical education at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center and the senior physician executive for system incident command for Northern Light Health.
He added that while it took a while for the state to adopt social distancing and face covering requirements, acting quickly to close schools and not rushing to reopen businesses were important steps in slowing the virus.
“Maine did an excellent job,” Jarvis said.
That job continues, especially when it comes to the large and unacceptable disparity of cases among Black Mainers, and we must all remain vigilant about keeping the virus under control, by wearing masks and staying apart. But looking at Maine’s COVID-19 numbers right now, and comparing our experience to other states, it’s important to recognize what has worked without declaring victory too soon.