BAR HARBOR — The updated guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that were announced on Dec. 27 (and include shortened quarantine and isolation times for people who have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19) will apply to Maine students once they return from winter break.
The Maine CDC and Maine Department of Education (DOE) made that announcement on Dec. 30.
Changes to the standard operating procedure for schools also include modifying who will be identified as “close contacts” of a COVID-19 case.
The Maine CDC will no longer consider exposures to COVID-19 that happened outside or on a school bus (where masks are federally mandated) as “close contacts.”
Also, if students and staff who participate in a school’s pooled testing program are exposed to COVID-19 in or outside of a school setting, they will not have to quarantine unless they test positive. Previously, the exposure had to occur within a school setting to avoid quarantine.
Nearly 30 percent of all Maine school staff and students are participating in pooled testing.
Additionally, the Maine CDC has changed the definition of what constitutes an outbreak of COVID-19 in the schools. The threshold for an outbreak will now be when 15 percent of a school population is absent, the standard used for other infectious diseases, such as the flu.
The new recommended isolation time (that now applies to those in school settings) for people who test positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic has been shortened from 10 days to five days, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others.
Additionally, the CDC is now recommending that unvaccinated people and people who are not fully vaccinated or not yet boosted (if eligible for a booster shot) who have been exposed to COVID-19, quarantine for five days and then wear masks for five more days.
For Americans who are up to date on their shots (which, for most students, does not include a booster dose), quarantining is not necessary after an exposure, but the CDC recommends taking a test after five days and wearing a mask for 10 days.
Americans ages 18 and older are eligible for a booster if it has been at least six months since they received their second dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine series or if they received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.
The CDC has said that 16- and 17-year-olds “may” get a booster dose but has not officially recommended it yet. Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah went a step further and said that 16- and 17-year-olds should get a booster.
As of Dec. 29, there have been 466,034 booster doses administered in the state. In Hancock County, 20,763 booster doses have been administered. Additionally, 49.3 percent of children ages five to 19 were fully vaccinated. Data from the end of October shows that 83 percent of school staff were fully vaccinated.
Before the Maine CDC and DOE officially updated standard operating procedures for COVID-19 response in schools, Shah signaled the changes would be coming soon at the Dec. 29 press briefing held by the Maine CDC.
“This is a big step forward,” in keeping students learning in person, Shah said of the new guidelines.
Some have criticized the CDC for making the changes, questioning whether it really is safe for people to leave isolation after five days.
Shah said the updated guidelines reflect new scientific data that show that the peak transmissibility of the virus that causes COVID-19 is typically two days before people feel symptoms and three days after the onset of symptoms. The new guidelines, he noted, are also a compromise to help get people back to some semblance of normalcy while remaining safe.
He explained that the risk of spreading COVID-19 after five days in isolation is lowered, but not eliminated, which is why wearing a mask after isolation is important.
What type of mask one wears matters, Shah said.
“We need to be upgrading our masks,” he said, noting that it might be time to retire cloth face coverings. He called using surgical masks the “bare minimum” but stated that Mainers may need to transition to wearing KN95 or N95 masks to protect against the virus.
Dr. James Jarvis at Northern Light Health’s Dec. 29 press briefing said that the new guidelines could be effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, but only if they are fully followed.
Jarvis reported that there were 64 patients being treated for COVID-19 in Northern Light hospitals. He said that each of the organization’s acute care facilities are treating patients with COVID-19, including one patient at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital and six at Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital.
The Maine CDC reported 18 COVID-related deaths on Dec. 29. One of those deaths was a person from Hancock County. Ten of the deaths were identified through vital records review and occurred between Dec. 1 and Dec. 16.