Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine – Maine is ending contact tracing for COVID-19 next week, with the state’s top health official saying the super-contagious omicron variant has made the public health measure less effective.

The omicron strain has surged to account for nearly all new cases in Maine. In the most recent data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the week ending Jan. 22, the virus accounted for 98 percent of sampled cases.

Compared with previous variants, a person who contracts the omicron variant becomes contagious sooner after exposure, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah noted Wednesday. People often are spreading the virus before having symptoms and may infect others before being reached by a state contact tracer.

“Contact tracing is based on the idea that public health agencies can identify a positive case, get their close contacts, reach out to those close contacts and advise them to quarantine all before that close contact has a chance to infect and spread COVID to others,” Shah said. “But the biology of the omicron variant is such that contact tracing doesn’t get to those folks fast enough.”

Maine previously scaled back contract tracing to focus on children, elderly people at severe risk of COVID-19 and health care workers as record case levels made it difficult for state workers to keep up with the number of cases. The state also announced earlier this month that it would no longer be doing contact tracing in schools that required masks.

Shah said the decision to scale back contact tracing was not linked to a backlog of tens of thousands of positive tests that have not yet been reported as cases. Several other states, including Virginia and Massachusetts, have also scaled back contact tracing in recent months. Maine is one of 16 states that has been conducting in-house contact tracing efforts, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

The end of contract tracing does not change guidelines for how Mainers should respond when they test positive. Tests are still recommended for people possibly exposed to the virus, and those who test positive are still recommended to isolate for five days under U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.