In this March 19, 2020, file photo, a man walks by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Water Street in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine’s disease detectives will no longer try to determine the origins of suspected cases of COVID-19 until they have been confirmed with a laboratory test, as those workers are becoming inundated during the state’s record-breaking surge of new coronavirus cases and the simultaneous arrival of the seasonal cold and flu season.

On Wednesday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that its investigators will no longer try to find the origins of probable coronavirus cases until they have been confirmed with a test. They have previously been investigating both confirmed cases and those classified as “probable” because they involve symptoms similar to COVID-19.

Although the Maine CDC is now trying to beef up its staff of case investigators and contact tracers, it also may no longer be able to reach out to people who test positive for the coronavirus within 24 hours of their diagnosis, as it has done over the last eight months, according to agency spokesperson Robert Long.

The change in the investigation of suspected cases comes as the coronavirus keeps surging to new highs around the state and as Mainers start to develop similar respiratory symptoms because they have caught a cold or the seasonal flu.

That will make it harder to determine whether probable cases are actually the coronavirus until a test can be completed. Health officials have urged Mainers to get vaccinated against the influenza to minimize the burden on clinics, hospitals and disease investigators during the pandemic, in addition to other precautions such as mask-wearing and avoiding indoor gatherings.

“Today’s adjustment ensures that all available COVID-19 response resources can be focused on lab-positive cases,” Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said. The change in process could result in fewer reports of probable cases, which the agency breaks out in its daily reporting, according to Shah. But he warned that it doesn’t mean the risk of the virus is any less.

The Maine CDC is still urging any Mainers who think they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 to quarantine and, if they develop symptoms, to seek testing.

The agency has recently moved 25 of its employees into case investigation and contact tracing roles, bringing the total number of people doing that work to more than 130. It is also bringing in 20 members of the Maine National Guard to join those teams.

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