Maine CDC ends contact tracing for COVID-19 during omicron wave

Maine is ending its COVID-19 contact tracing program on Tuesday because the now-dominant omicron variant renders the program ineffective, health officials said Wednesday.

Contact tracing is the process by which public health workers contact people who have been exposed to COVID-19, warn them, and advise those exposed to monitor for symptoms and quarantine them if necessary.

“Omicron is epidemiologically different from other variants. People start spreading it earlier, before contact tracers can reach them,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. that people infected with omicron are contagious before they get sick and often transmit the virus to others even before contact tracers are aware of the positive case.

Research is still ongoing, but it appears that omicron is contagious around two days before other COVID-19 variants, and as early as one day after being infected, according to public health experts. This early contagiousness gives omicron a leg up on contact tracers. Shah compared it to a track race where omicron wears a jetpack and the virus “may be halfway down the track before public health puts its shoes on.” For similar reasons, Maine ended contact tracing in schools this year.

Ending the program will free up about 20 Maine CDC employees to work on other aspects of the COVID-19 response, or in other areas of the agency, Shah said. Contact tracing will still take place in certain settings, such as hospitals and prisons, but will be halted for the general population.

The contact tracing program is a separate but parallel initiative to the case investigation, which has also been reduced but not discontinued. Case investigation is the process of investigating cases by coming into contact with people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, determining where they may have been exposed, and identifying who may be close contacts.

Shah also said the end of contact tracing is unrelated to the backlog of positive test results – which now stands at 58,000. The backlog will be dealt with when Maine moves to an automated system for track cases, a change that’s in the works, but there’s no timeline for launch yet.

In other news, hospitalizations for COVID-19 plunged again on Wednesday amid signs that pandemic conditions are easing in the state and across much of the country.

Maine health officials reported 344 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, 14 fewer than Tuesday, and a far cry from the January 13 peak of 436 patients. Since that peak, hospitalizations have fallen by 21%.

Among those hospitalized on Wednesday, 83 patients were in intensive care – a 37% drop from the December 13 peak of 133 intensive care patients – and 38 were on ventilators. Hospitalizations have declined almost daily since Jan. 22 as the omicron wave appears to be on the downward slope.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, the parent company of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, said he noticed a drop in the number of COVID-19 patients, but hospitals are still strained.

“Hospitals are always very, very busy and very difficult,” Jarvis said.


Meanwhile, the Maine CDC on Wednesday recorded eight new deaths from COVID-19, bringing the pandemic total to 1,759.

The CDC also reported 1,340 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, though daily case counts are less emphasized as a reliable measure of current pandemic conditions. Besides the huge backlog of positive test results, there are other reasons why the daily case count is skewed and not used as a barometer of pandemic conditions, such as the proliferation of home testing and stock restrictions. of testing.

The omicron variant has quickly become the dominant strain in Maine, according to data from the Jackson Laboratory, which does variant testing for the Maine CDC. According to the latest report, omicron increased from 24% of samples tested at the end of December to 98% in mid-January.

Tests of sewage systems in Portland and Yarmouth indicate the virus is on the decline in Maine. Portland released results Wednesday showing a 50% drop in virus prevalence at its East End processing plant over a five-day period from Jan. 27-31, and a 56% drop at its Westbrook plant in during the same period.

Another good sign, the positivity rate – the percentage of molecular tests returned positive – fell from 21.2% two weeks ago to 13.7% on Wednesday.

Shah said the trends were all pointing in the right direction, but in some regions the omicron fell sharply to levels below the delta variant, but in other regions the omicron jumped again after declining .

“The data is encouraging, but we want to see more of what the latter part of this curve looks like,” Shah said. “COVID is down, but it may not be out.”

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