Gov. Janet Mills presents Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah with a 12-pack of Diet Coke at the final COVID-19 press conference in the State House on Wednesday June 30, 2021. Shah's love for the soft drink was well-documented during numerous press briefings during the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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As of Thursday, Maine is no longer in a state of emergency because of COVID-19. This ends more than 15 months of emergency orders from Gov. Janet Mills.

The first order, on March 15, 2020, was implemented as the new virus began to spread in Maine. Since then, more than 69,000 cases of the illness have been reported and 860 people have died in the Pine Tree State.

Mills’ string of emergency orders sparked protest and debate. Legislative Republicans tried to strip Mills of her emergency powers. Because of the restrictions she imposed, former President Donald Trump called her “a dictator” on a trip to the state last year. But Maine has managed the pandemic relatively well, seeing among the lowest per-capita case counts and the highest vaccination rates among states.

Fortunately, the number of new cases of COVID and deaths from the virus in Maine have plummeted. This is a testament to the vigilance of Maine people and the effectiveness of many of the governor’s actions.

“After fifteen long, difficult months, ending the State of Civil Emergency is a welcome milestone that reflects the progress Maine has made in getting people vaccinated, reducing the spread of the virus, and getting back to normal,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a June 11 statement announcing the upcoming end of the civil emergency. “Maine people have persevered, and, although challenges remain, we will get through them together just as we did this past year. I congratulate and thank Maine people for all they have done to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their fellow citizens.”

For most Mainers, the ending of COVID-related emergency orders won’t make much difference in their daily lives. Many restrictions — such as limits on gathering sizes or the number of people allowed in stores, and mask requirements for vaccinated Mainers — ended weeks or months ago.

Some beneficial changes that were spurred by the pandemic, such as the increased use of telemedicine, absentee ballot drop boxes and to-go cocktails, will continue, at least for a while.

The ending of restrictions, however, doesn’t mean that COVID-19 has gone away. The emergence of new variants of the virus, especially the more virulent delta strain, is reason for continued caution.

The delta variant, which was first identified in India where 400,000 people died as the country’s health system was overwhelmed earlier this year, is 50 percent more virulent than other strains, the Associated Press reported.

The variant is now responsible for about a quarter of all new COVID cases in the U.S. It accounts for half the new cases in 10 states, including Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Importantly, COVID vaccinations appear to be effective against the delta variant, health experts say.

Nearly all COVID deaths in the U.S. now are in unvaccinated people, a recent AP analysis found. About 1 percent of COVID-related hospitalizations were of people who had been vaccinated and only 0.8 percent of deaths in May were among those who had gotten the COVID vaccine.

This, the AP reported, is “a staggering demonstration of how effective the shots have been and an indication that deaths per day — now down to under 300 — could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine.”

Thursday was also the day for the last regularly scheduled COVID briefing led by Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who held 190 such events during the pandemic. The briefings, often attended by Commissioner of Health and Human Services Jeanne Lambrew and Gov. Janet Mills, were held daily at the beginning of the pandemic and pared back to weekly in recent weeks. During that time, Shah, who was new to the job and Maine, became a household name and a fan club was even created.

On Thursday, he said a tearful thank you to his wife, as well as all Mainers, who he credited with vanquishing the worst predictions about the pandemic by taking care of one another.

“We faced the worst that nature had to offer and responded with the best that humanity can imagine,” he said.

Shah also noted that, “Though the emergency ends, COVID continues.” That’s worth remembering, even as there is plenty to be thankful for. Maine hasn’t left COVID completely behind, but we’ve turned an important corner.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...