To view the ”Selected Reportable Diseases in Maine, Year to Date (YTD) and Five Year Median through June 2020“ click here.
To view the ”Selected Reportable Diseases in Maine, Year to Date (YTD) and Five Year Median through June 2020“ click here.
The most recent monthly report from Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on infectious diseases suggests some of the knock-on effects of the coronavirus, which itself appeared in reports for the first time this year and has more cases in 2020 than any other infectious disease except influenza.

The report compares year-to-date statistics with the median number of cases for the same months over the past five years. For all but a few of the 31 diseases on the report, cases are down this year.

Robert Long, spokesman for Maine CDC, said epidemiologists haven’t drawn hard conclusions from the current numbers. But he offered some working theories, including the likelihood that social distancing and isolation measures taken for the coronavirus have slowed the spread of other diseases, too.

“With people interacting less frequently, opportunistic viruses have fewer opportunities to make people sick,” he said.

Varicella (chickenpox) and pertussis (whooping cough) are way down this year, which Long said is at least partly attributable to young children being out of classrooms this spring. With chickenpox, he said, an aggressive vaccination campaign might have contributed additionally to the drop.

Because many of the diseases the CDC tracks are acute, they’re typically reported when people seek care, rather than at well visits. For this reason, Long said, the statistics aren’t likely to be skewed by people putting off well visits during the pandemic.

One exception could be with sexually transmitted diseases. Maine CDC reported declines in all but acute Hepatitis A and acute Hepatitis C. However, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England recently began offering at-home testing for sexually transmitted infections including gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis based on warnings from experts that STIs could be rising during the pandemic.

Hepatitis A has been on the rise nationally since 2016. The wave hit Maine in 2019. Earlier this year, Maine CDC documented increases in three counties, Penobscot, Somerset and York. State-wide, the CDC had documented 54 cases by the end of June, compared to a median of two during the past five years.

Long said the exact reason for the rise isn’t known — hepatitis A can be transmitted through needles, food or sex— but epidemiologists believe the virus might be flourishing because intravenous drug users and people in vulnerable housing situations have historically used restaurant bathrooms to clean up, and during the pandemic restaurants have been closed.

Additionally, Long said reduced access to needle exchanges might be a factor. Maine CDC lists five syringe service programs.

Kenney Miller, executive director of Health Equity Alliance, a nonprofit that operates needle exchange services in Bangor, Belfast, Ellsworth, Machias and Calais, said traffic at the Bangor office dropped by 20 percent after Governor Mills’ stay-at-home order. Additionally, Health Equity Alliance had to reduce its hours to accommodate some workers who were at higher risk for infection and parents who were unable to get childcare during the shutdown. Responding to service providers, Mills on March 30 lifted the standing “one for one” rule that prevented needle exchanges from giving out extra clean needles, which Miller said has helped make up for the drop in in-person traffic.

Miller said hepatitis C testing has been put on hold because it’s “hard to do that in a way that doesn’t put people in close proximity.” As a result, he said, it could be underreported.

The Maine CDC report shows tick-borne diseases down somewhat. Long noted that people weren’t out as much from April to June. He cautioned that it’s still early in the season and said detection of Lyme disease is often delayed because tests rely on finding antibodies, which only appear later.

Despite the demands of the pandemic, Long said state epidemiologists are continuing to study and monitor other diseases. He gave the example of the weekly influenza reports that were put out by a department member who was also working on COVID-19.

“It may not be in the public spotlight, but there’s work going on on all the diseases on the list.”

Maine CDC is planning flu clinics for the fall in an effort to head off a disease that can add a layer of hazard to what is likely to be an ongoing pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, the CDC advised people to get their annual flu shot as a public health safeguard. The thinking at the time was that flu patients with respiratory problems would tax the medical resources needed for what experts were warning could be a surge of COVID-19 cases. To date, Maine has averted the kind of spike in coronavirus cases that has overwhelmed hospitals in other states, but the pandemic is far from over, and Long said getting a flu vaccination is as important as ever.

“As [COVID-19] restrictions loosen, the last thing you want is an influenza outbreak,” he said.