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Maine to triple testing capacity for coronavirus

Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she announced new plans for the stay-at-home order and other measures to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she announced new plans for the stay-at-home order and other measures to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Maine Governor Janet Mills announced a partnership with IDEXX Laboratories, a local manufacturer, which will allow the state to more than triple its testing capacity in the coming weeks and remove testing criteria for those who believe they may have the virus.

The public-private partnership will introduce a new diagnostic testing system to the state’s health department and bolster the state’s testing 2,000 tests per week to 7,000 tests per week “for the foreseeable future,” Mills said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. IDEXX is also lending 3,500 test kits to the state’s health department.

“This significant expansion of testing will eliminate the testing priority system in Maine,” Mills said. “Once the testing with this new platform is in operation, which may be as early as the end of next week, health care providers across the state will be able to seek testing for anyone who they suspect may have COVID-19.”

State officials have been in talks with the Westbrook-based company, which employs 3,000 Maine residents, for some time about a potential partnership, Mills said. Approval for the partnership from the Federal Drug Administration was granted Thursday morning, allowing the plan to move forward.

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The increase in testing capacity “will make Maine one of the first state health departments, if not the first, to remove all criteria in all tiers in its testing system,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, at the press conference Thursday afternoon.

“This changes everything, Mills said. “A year ago, if you told me I might get emotional over a diagnostic test for some strange virus, I would have thought that was pretty odd.”

The announcement comes as Maine reported no new deaths and 76 coronavirus cases Thursday morning, as the statewide death toll remains at 62 and the cases count remains at 1,330, officials said.

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Of the new cases, the majority came from two outbreaks across the state, Shah said. At the Tyson Foods plant in Portland, 39 positive cases were included in Thursday’s case count. State-recommended universal testing at the plant found that most positive cases were found in employees, with “a few” found in contractors. The plant recently completed its deep-cleaning process and reopened at one-quarter capacity Thursday, Shah said.

At a Springbrook Center in Westbrook, 13 positive cases were reported Thursday, Shah said. One of the positive cases was a staff member, with the remaining 12 being residents of the facility. About 300 people at the facility have been tested, with five tests pending results.

“This increase in cases has been anticipated for several days now,” Shah said. “We do continue to expect to find more cases in long-term care facilities and other congregate care facilities across the state.”

Congregate living facilities across the state will have top priority once universal testing is implemented, Shah said.

Universal testing will cause state officials to re-evaluate the state’s four-stage plan to reopen the economy, which began in the beginning of May and is set to enter Stage 2 in June, Mills said.

The new diagnostic testing is “crucial to our gradual restarting of the economy, and it’s one of the four guiding principles for my plan to reopen Maine,” Mills said.

An update on the plan will come “very soon,” she said.

State officials will continue to press the federal government and attempt to secure a higher testing capacity in the coming weeks, Mills said.

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Throughout the state, 787 people have recovered since contracting the virus, officials said. A total of 192 people have been hospitalized at some point during their illness. Thirty-nine people are currently hospitalized, with 16 in critical care and 11 on ventilators.

Of the state’s total cases, 286 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been health care workers, Shah said.

Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.