Masked and unmasked pedestrians walk along Central Street in Bangor on Wednesday on Sept. 22, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Healthy Mainers in counties with lower COVID-19 rates can stop wearing masks, federal health authorities said.  

COVID-19 transmission rates are low enough in Waldo, Somerset and Kennebec counties that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says healthy residents there can safely end wearing masks.

Still, the rest of Maine’s counties have high enough transmission rates where masks are still recommended, the U.S. CDC said.

The news comes as coronavirus hospitalizations have dropped drastically over the past month. On Friday, there were just 181 Mainers hospitalized due to the virus, a nearly 60 percent drop since a pandemic high of 436 set on Jan. 13.

Meanwhile, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is still working through a backlog of more than 50,000 positive tests it reported on Feb. 14. As of Tuesday morning, the Maine CDC reported the backlog had shrunk to around 6,000 positive tests. The agency began automating part of its count last week as the rapid spread of the highly contagious omicron variant overwhelmed its ability to keep up with daily cases.

Wastewater testing throughout the state has allowed officials to get a better understanding of the prevalence of COVID-19 throughout Maine, as the Maine Center for Disease Control continues to work through a backlog of positive tests that has altered the efficacy of daily case counts to indicate true case and community transmission rates.

Preliminary data suggest that some Maine communities, such as areas in Piscataquis, Waldo and York counties have seen a drop in coronavirus in wastewater. However, wastewater data show that COVID-19 rates vary widely across the state.

Aroostook County has continued to be a COVID-19 hotspot, despite the virus subsiding in other Maine communities.

Wastewater testing data show that concentrations of the virus remain highest in Aroostook County, where Presque Isle is seeing one of the nation’s highest average totals of COVID-19 in wastewater.

The U.S. CDC is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. Masking requirements for public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations will remain in place for now.

The Maine CDC has not issued new mask guidance for Mainers. However, the agency said that it would examine masking guidelines for schools after students return from the February break.

Hermon schools have made the decision to drop masking for students by March 14, and Lewiston has said that it is debating a decision to make masking optional in its schools.

A handful of towns and cities across the state that implemented mask mandates in public spaces amid the omicron surge that spread through the state in January have since dropped those mandates.

BDN writer Sierra Whaley contributed to this report.

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Leela Stockley

Leela Stockley is an alumna of the University of Maine. She was raised in northern Maine, and loves her cat Wesley, her puppy Percy and staying active in the Maine outdoors.