As we trudge on into the seventh month of our new coronavirus era lives, don’t lose hope that we can get back some semblance of normalcy while protecting our health. Look to Maine for a case in point.
The state recently ranked #1 in the country in a new “back to normal” economic index. It also consistently reports some of the lowest virus levels in the country. That’s no coincidence. It’s a result of early action, strong and consistent leadership, and testing infrastructure that can catch isolated outbreaks before they explode.
Many other states opted for shortcuts instead of doing the hard work, reopening their economies too quickly and then standing back with jaws dropped as cases and deaths skyrocketed. South Dakota, for example, is operating at 87 percent of its pre-pandemic economic capacity, but it also has one of the fastest growing outbreaks in the country -- about 40 new cases per 100,000 people on average per day, compared to Maine, which has just over 2.
A key part of Maine’s success is the consistent messaging and leadership from the top, on both sides of the political spectrum. In one of the country’s most hotly contested elections for the United States Senate, candidates Sen. Susan Collins (R) and Maine’s Speaker of the House Sara Gideon (D) have one thing in common: They both wear masks. Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention gives frequent briefings about COVID-19 in the state, famously “Rickrolling” reporters at one press conference to emphasize that Maine’s contact tracers will never “give you up, let you down, they’re never gonna run around and desert you.”
But Maine’s also a cautionary tale for how falling back into old ways of thinking when the danger seems to have passed can have serious repercussions. In early August, a couple held an indoor wedding and reception with 65 people in the Millinocket area, which violated the state’s 50 person limit on indoor gatherings. It sparked an outbreak of COVID-19 among attendees, which quickly spread to other people who didn’t even attend the wedding. This “superspreader event” has now been linked to more than 270 infections and 8 deaths, accounting for more than 5 percent of all COVID-19 cases and deaths statewide.
I won’t shame the couple for getting married during a pandemic. It’s hard to put your life on hold. But there was no reason not to comply with public health guidelines. By early August, we knew much more about where and how the virus spreads than we did in March. Experts agree that outside is better than inside, we should avoid crowds -- especially indoors -- and masks and social distancing can significantly reduce the risk of transmission. In a state such as Maine, which has low virus levels, people can gather safely, but only if they follow the public health protocols. Ignoring them risks losing hard won progress to blunt the virus’s spread.
Leadership from the top and clear public health communication led to Maine’s success, but its testing infrastructure is probably the best tool to maintain it. Maine is one of a handful of states that’s doing enough testing to effectively suppress the virus. That means rather than just using testing as a tool to contain big outbreaks after they happen, as most states are doing, Maine can snuff out isolated incidents before they turn into epidemics. But, as the wedding incident shows, sufficient testing capacity doesn’t mean we can throw caution to the wind.
Widespread testing, combined with effective contact tracing, is how state officials have largely managed to keep the wedding outbreak from getting completely out of control. It’s also why Maine’s economy is safely operating at levels beyond any other state. According to the state's website, anyone who needs a test can get a test, with or without symptoms. You don’t need a test order from a healthcare provider, and there are several testing sites available across Maine.
The takeaway is that there’s no panacea for all our COVID-19 problems. Maine’s top decision makers, Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, implemented public health measures and stuck with them. They told Mainers the truth and asked for their buy-in to keep people healthy. They built up our testing capacity and reopened slowly. And now we’re reaping the benefits.
Other state governors should follow Maine’s lead.