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COVID surge reaches Maine, which reports 20 new deaths

"With increasing community spread, the disease now has names and faces associated with it, and that makes it more personal,” said Dr. David McDermott, vice president of the Northern Light hospitals in Piscataquis County.
"With increasing community spread, the disease now has names and faces associated with it, and that makes it more personal,” said Dr. David McDermott, vice president of the Northern Light hospitals in Piscataquis County.Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

The surge in COVID-19 cases sweeping the country also has reached Maine, where state officials Tuesday reported 20 new deaths, the largest increase in coronavirus-related fatalities since the pandemic began in March.

Although the deaths represent the most in any single update by the state, nearly all the fatalities occurred over a week-long span dating to Nov. 23. They had not been reported until Tuesday because of delays connected to the long holiday weekend, state officials said.

Also Tuesday, Governor Janet Mills, who imposed strict travel bans to the state ahead of Thanksgiving, revealed she is going into quarantine after a member of the State Police unit assigned to protect her developed COVID-19-like symptoms on Monday.

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Half of the 20 deaths reported Tuesday occurred in Androscoggin County in mid-Maine and raised the state’s overall death toll to 214. All but one of the victims were in their 70s or older, and eight of the Androscoggin County fatalities had been residents of long-term care facilities in Auburn and Lewiston.

State officials also reported 219 new cases of the coronavirus, which had spared much of Maine while Northeast states such as Massachusetts and New York were hit hard in the spring. Those states now are seeing a resurgence.

Dr. David McDermott, vice president of the Northern Light hospitals in Piscataquis County, said Maine appears to be suffering COVID fatigue like much of the rest of the nation.

“People are getting tired of restrictions on socialization and choosing to let their guard down,” McDermott said.

“Unfortunately, there are still a substantial number of COVID deniers in the state: Folks who either don’t believe that the virus is real, or who don’t think they are at risk for severe consequences, or don’t believe that masks make a difference, or who feel that masks infringe on their constitutional rights,” McDermott added.

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For the first time, the state’s death toll touched sparsely populated Piscataquis County, which this spring had been the last county in New England to record a COVID-19 case. A Piscataquis resident in his 70s died Sunday.

“With increasing community spread, the disease now has names and faces associated with it, and that makes it more personal,” McDermott said. “I daresay that most people now know at least one Piscataquis resident who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Maybe that will help us to bend the curve.

“It is no longer a disease that happens elsewhere. It is a part of us,” he added.

Maine has recorded 11,976 cases overall, a tiny fraction of the 221,174 that had been reported in Massachusetts as of Tuesday. The seven-day average for new cases in Maine is 168.9, according to state data. That’s a reduction from 217 a week ago, but more than double the figure of 71.9 from a month ago.

“Like most other states, Maine is experiencing community transmission of the virus,” said Robert Long, spokesman for the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “A small number of outbreaks can be attributed to social gatherings, but we’re also seeing transmission result from exposure in workplaces, congregate living settings, and public places.”

“We can’t speculate on what case counts will look like in three to four weeks,” Long added. “But the presence of community transmission makes it more important than ever to wear face coverings, stay at least 6 feet apart, and avoid nonessential interactions.”

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Travelers from Massachusetts to Maine once again are being subjected to strict quarantine and testing, a mandate reimposed Nov. 16 by Mills after being suspended Sept. 23.

“Some of our New England states, including Massachusetts, have demonstrated a concerning increase in the prevalence of the virus over the last two weeks,” Mills said last month. “To preserve our ability to travel while protecting the health of our loved ones no matter where they live, visitors from Massachusetts, and Maine people returning from Massachusetts, must now test negative for COVID-19 or quarantine when coming to Maine.”

On Nov. 5, Mills issued an executive order requiring residents to wear masks in public, regardless of their ability to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing. State officials also are reviewing whether to extend a 9 p.m. curfew, set to expire Sunday, for restaurants, bars, and other sectors of Maine’s hospitality industry.

Mills began her quarantine at the Blaine House, her official residence, on Tuesday, and will continue until Dec. 12, in compliance with guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and Maine public health officials, according to a statement from Mills’s office.

“I am feeling fine and not experiencing any symptoms whatsoever; but as we have said all along, no one is immune from exposure to this virus,” Mills said in the statement. “I am going to continue working as hard as I can on behalf of Maine people during this quarantine; but putting a lid on this virus will also require hard work by every person all across the state.”

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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.