Members of the Milford community debate the pros and cons of a universal mask mandate during a Milford School Committee meeting inside the Dr. Lewis Libby School on Aug. 12, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / The Penobscot Times

Good morning from Augusta.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It’s great that everyone on Twitter is back to being an expert on immunology after 72 hours of expertise on Afghanistan,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah tweeted Wednesday.

What we’re watching today

Schools districts across Maine are deciding whether to require students to wear masks as they return to school this fall with COVID-19 cases higher than they were a year ago. In the past few days, districts in Lewiston, Auburn, Hermon and Hampden have decided against requiring students and staff to mask up in school buildings. Bangor and Portland, among other districts, will require face coverings.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal mask-wearing in schools, citing high caseloads and the fact that children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Masks were required in schools last year with relatively little controversy, but Gov. Janet Mills gave up the power to keep that mandate in effect when she ended Maine’s state of emergency in June. The state simply recommends masks now.

At school board meetings in recent weeks, parents in opposition to masking have argued it infringes on freedom or inhibits kids’ social development. Some have argued that parents should be able to decide whether their kids wear masks, and many have cited significantly lower case and hospitalization rates among children compared to the general population.

Proponents of mask-wearing have generally cited public health reasons, with epidemiologists saying universal masking provides better protection for everyone in the school than only having virus-conscious kids wear a face covering.

The conversations have often played out differently based on the political leanings of the respective towns. School board meetings have at times turned contentious, with parents in Skowhegan comparing mask-wearing to “child abuse,” the Morning Sentinel reported. In Milford, however, the argument of one parent of an immunocompromised child won out with masks being required indoors by a 3-1 vote after a board member switched their vote.

Schools do have one new tool to combat COVID-19 this year, as the state has rolled out a pooled testing program that allows all participating students and teachers to get tested for the virus once a week.

Although COVID-19 cases in Maine are not as prevalent as they were last winter, they are significantly higher compared to when Maine students returned to school in August 2020, and masks were required then. The seven-day average of new cases among people younger than 20 climbed to 33 as of Wednesday, compared with just six at this time last year.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Home health agencies, paramedics fear staff exits after Maine’s vaccine mandate,” Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News: “Portland-based MaineHealth, the state’s biggest health care provider, has seen no turnover yet because of the vaccine, a spokesperson said on Wednesday. At Brewer-based Northern Light Health, a ‘small’ number of employees have tendered their resignations rather than get vaccinated, said Paul Bolin, the senior vice president and chief human resources officer. But some have also threatened to quit and changed their minds, he said.”

The contagious delta variant seems to have largely bypassed the state’s nursing homes. But outbreaks are still occurring, albeit at a much lower rate than before. The state saw 40 cases among residents and staff members in five long-term care home outbreaks since July 1, compared with three dozen outbreaks last January. Experts pointed to high vaccination rates among residents as the main reason for the reduced numbers.

Vaccines for workers at long-term care facilities could soon be a federal mandate, too. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that nursing home staff would be required to get vaccinated for those facilities to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid payments. The regulation could come as soon as next month.

— “What one Maine city is doing to fight the effects of urban heat,” Lori Valigra, BDN, and Priyanka Runwal, Climate Central: “Like many other Maine cities, Biddeford is regularly experiencing temperatures far higher than surrounding suburban and rural areas. On average, it is a little over 6 degrees warmer than its surroundings, about the same difference as in nearby Portland, according to an analysis from Climate Central, a nonprofit science and journalism organization.”

— “Penobscot County Jail risks losing its license due to overcrowding,” Sawyer Loftus, BDN: “The plan, so far, that the county will present to Corrections includes working with the judicial system to help decrease the number of people in jail who are waiting for trial, which represents 84 percent of the current occupants, develop better mental health services, investigate facility changes with county commissioners and ask other places with open beds to take on some of the county’s population.”

CMP launches new ballot question committee

Central Maine Power has a new political group aiming to fight the November ballot question that could block the energy company’s transmission line in western Maine. The group, named Mainers for Fair Laws, filed paperwork with Maine’s ethics regulator this week and has already begun running television ads ahead of the anti-corridor referendum on the November ballot. The fight against CMP was extended this week when critics launched their effort to put at least one version of a utility takeover measure on the 2022 ballot.

The name provides some insight into how CMP might try to fight the corridor project over the next few months, extending the argument that retroactively banning a construction project already in process is unfair and bad for the state’s business climate. Here’s your soundtrack.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews, Jessica Piper and edited by Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

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