Virus Outbreak Maine

Portraits of graduating seniors at Telstar Regional High School are displayed May 22, 2020, near the school's athletic field in Bethel, Maine.

(The Center Square) – Maine will provide fast-acting tests for diagnosing COVID-19 infections to public schools to help keep them open as teachers and staff wait to be vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the state has purchased at least 250,000 BinaxNOW rapid tests, which can produce results in 15 minutes, and will make them available for use in schools and long-term care facilities in coming months.

The expanded testing in schools "will further protect the health of Maine children, educators, and school staff, along with their broader communities," Lambrew said.

"This will strengthen the strategy that has effectively limited the virus transmission in school settings," she said during a livestreamed briefing on Tuesday.

Lambrew said rapid testing has proved effective in easing staffing problems at hospitals and long-term care facilities where workers regularly come into contact with infected people.

"Quickly identifying cases and preventing outbreaks helps to keep schools and other settings safe," she said. "So if teachers test negative they can be in the classroom instead of in quarantine."

The expanded rapid testing options come amid a push from the state's teachers unions to move educators higher up in the priority list of COVID-19 vaccinations as more school districts look to expand in-person learning.

Under the state's vaccine plans, teachers are included with other front-line workers such as grocery store employees in the next round of vaccinations but state officials say limited supplies of the medicines means it's not clear when that will get underway.

Dr. Nirav Shah, who heads Maine's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out the COVID-19 case rate in schools is far lower than that of the general population.

Overall, the number of infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 in the state has been declining in recent weeks following a post-holiday surge.

On Tuesday, Maine reported 91 new cases and two additional deaths. The state's 7-day case average has dropped to 166, from 323 cases two weeks ago.

"There are reasons for optimism on the horizon," Shah said during Tuesday's briefing. "The number of new cases has come down and with it the number of hospitalizations as well as the number of new deaths each day. At the same time, more and more vaccine shots are going into arms with each passing week."