March 22, 2020
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How Maine is preparing for the possibility of coronavirus

Claudio Furlan | AP
Claudio Furlan | AP
A paramedic wearing a mask gets out of a tent set up by the Italian Civil Protection outside the emergency ward of the Piacenza hospital, northern Italy, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. Italy is changing how it reports coronavirus cases and who will get tested in ways that could lower the country’s caseload even as an outbreak centered in northern Italy spreads in Europe.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The coronavirus risk remains low in Maine, but state officials are trying to get residents to prepare for the worst while ramping up a response to combat a possible outbreak here.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is informing health care providers about protocols and bolstering public awareness. Lawmakers are putting money toward better testing equipment, while the national delegation is opposing part of a funding plan from the administration of President Donald Trump that they say would hurt low-income Mainers.

What is coronavirus? The virus is a new version of a common strain that can cause cold-like symptoms in people or illnesses in animals. It originated in Wuhan, China, and may have spread from animals. People who have traveled to China are most at risk of infection.

The virus has primarily affected the upper respiratory tract, including pneumonia in the lungs, coughing and shortness of breath, along with typical flu symptoms including fever. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates symptoms can appear between two to 14 days after exposure.

Globally, the virus has hit 82,000 people, while 2,800 people have died from the virus. Older people are significantly more likely to die, according to a Chinese government study. Travel and trade impacts have caused the stock market to plummet for almost a week.

There were 14 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. CDC. The most recent confirmed case in the U.S. may be the first instance of a “general population” case — meaning it originated within the infected person’s community and not from travel or exposure to another known patient.

Maine is spending more to prepare for the outbreak, though only one person has been tested for coronavirus here. That test came back negative last week. As of the beginning of the month, only one confirmed case was in New England. Still, Maine officials are preparing as if it will land in the state. The Legislature’s budget committee unanimously approved the use of $58,000 in unspent federal funds to purchase a machine that can test for the virus this week.

Maine CDC director Nirav Shah said that machine will be operational by next week, once the federal CDC releases its kits dedicated to the virus. Those kits have been held up due to a problem with an ingredient that has created a testing bottleneck, according to NPR.

Shah said the Maine CDC has dedicated 30 full-and-part time employees to the virus outbreak. Those range from public health nurses and epidemiologists, financial staff and communication experts. That kind of response is necessary in case the virus arrives in Maine, Shah said.

“It’s a situation where you cannot be building a plane and flying it at the same time,” he said.

The Trump administration has submitted a funding plan for responding to the outbreak that has been criticized by Maine’s congressional delegation. The Republican president has floated a $2.5 billion plan to respond to the virus while putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the response. However, it calls for taking $37 million from a heating assistance program for low-income people, which was criticized by all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation on Thursday.

Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, have criticized that part of the proposal. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, signed onto a letter to the U.S. House and Senate appropriations leadership opposing it, while Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, said it was “difficult to understand” how it could be a serious proposal in winter.

Collins also met on Wednesday with Shah, who belongs to a group of state health officials that has said $3.1 billion is required to respond to the virus. She supported that higher figure — which congressional Democrats are rallying around in rival proposals — in a news release.

Health experts are advising the public to prepare like they would for a blizzard. Dora Mills, the former director of the Maine CDC who is now chief health improvement officer for Portland-based health system MaineHealth, said the hospitals are making sure they have enough pandemic supplies, such as respiratory masks and gloves.

She advised the public to do something similar — prepare for days of isolation similar to a blizzard. Mills recommended stocking two weeks of food and toiletries in the event of sickness.

“These pandemics do go by like a blizzard and your preparedness should be very similar,” she said.

Part of the challenge, Mills said, is that it’s unclear at this point whether the virus will fizzle out once warmer months approach or persist into the summer. She said greater social isolation — such as closing schools and asking people to work from home — may be necessary if the virus hits Maine as a way to slow contagion.

The virus brings up memories of another, deadlier virus that changed how we reacted to potential pandemics. For Shah and Mills, the reaction to the coronavirus outbreak is reminiscent of one of the worst pandemics in recent history: the H1N1 outbreak that resulted in 60.8 million cases and 12,000 deaths in the U.S. from 2009 to 2010, according to the CDC.

It was a new virus that stood out because the deaths largely occurred in people under the age of 65. Older populations were found to have some immunity to the virus, suggesting there had been some immunity from past viruses. It killed 21 people in Maine.

The 2009 outbreak changed how public health officials respond to pandemics. A new type of influenza laboratory testing method saw widespread adoption. The use of gene-sequencing technology — which allows public health agencies to manipulate a gene to see how the virus might change — allowed the CDC to speed up the testing process.

Shah said it changed how “last-mile problems,” such as transporting sick patients from one facility to the next, are handled. Health officials adapted plans to ensure ambulances were not infected and drivers were protected from contagion — small steps that slow outbreaks.

It helps, Mills said, that flu outbreaks are nothing new. She pointed to other flus that have touched Maine — such as the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak and the “Hong Kong” flu of 1968, both of which killed millions of people worldwide. Those pandemics led to the “mature” pandemic plans of today that make the state prepared to handle the virus should it worsen, she said.

“We’ve been through it before, and we’ve always gotten through it,” Mills said.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized a letter U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree signed concerning LIHEAP funding.

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