While no cases of coronavirus have yet been confirmed in Maine, officials and organizations across the state are nevertheless preparing for the strong possibility that the infection could arrive here after a few cases were already detected in other New England states including New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
The state is in the process of testing about a dozen new individuals for the COVID-19 virus, while hospitals have been isolating patients who show flu-like symptoms associated with the infection. Schools have been taking extra precautions such as cleaning buses after every use, and health officials have been urging people to thoroughly wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough.
Although federal health officials have cautioned that soap-and-water work better than alcohol-based sanitizers and that healthy individuals do not need to wear face masks, some Mainers have also been rushing to the store to stock up on masks and sanitizer. At least two Greater Bangor supermarkets had run out of them earlier this week.
Based on a briefing from Maine health officials earlier this week, there is “every reason to believe” COVID-19 will spread to Maine, said Jeff Doran, vice president of clinical services for Northern Light Health, a group of 10 Maine hospitals headquartered in Brewer.
After the state Legislature approved the use of $58,000 to purchase a machine to test patients for coronavirus, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has received the equipment and expects to begin conducting the tests in the next several days, agency spokesman Robert Long said on Thursday. The distribution of kits to state testing labs was previously held up by a problem at the U.S. CDC, NPR has reported.
“The number of requests for testing will increase as the COVID-19 situation continues to rapidly evolve globally and in the United States,” Long said. “Moving forward, tests will be conducted at both Maine CDC and U.S. CDC to facilitate prompt results.”
In the meantime, Maine CDC has decided to test another 12 or so people for coronavirus after one person was tested last month and came back negative. It has sent those tests to the U.S. CDC and is waiting on the results.
Earlier this week, federal health officials announced that they had expanded the criteria under which patients could be tested for coronavirus, so that any patients with fevers, coughing or shortness of breath may be tested with their doctors’ approval, according to the New York Times.
“This is a challenging illness,” said Dr. James Clarke, senior physician executive at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. “It seems to be changing and spreading, so there are constant upgrades of the news and we don’t know a lot about it yet.”
Like the nine other Maine hospitals in the Northern Light Health network, EMMC has a team of staff from various departments whose job is to monitor and prepare for large-scale incidents such as coronavirus.
That work includes checking whether the hospital has adequate supplies and making sure staff are aware of the need to identify patients with symptoms such as a severe cough or fever, whether the patients have arrived at the emergency room, a walk-in clinic or somewhere else, according to Clarke. When patients show those symptoms, the hospital also informs Maine CDC, which is responsible for determining whether they have COVID-19.
“The majority of those patients do not have a severe illness. They may have a typical flu bug or a respiratory infection of another sort,” Clarke said. “But until we’re confident, we may put them in isolation in a negative pressure room or a private room. We may ask staff to wear protective garments. The idea is to reduce the likelihood of transmission.”
The Bangor School Department has also been taking measures to prepare for the possibility that coronavirus could arrive here.
In an email to families, Superintendent Betsy Webb said that custodians “have been instructed to continue to take extra care with cleaning surfaces and bathrooms” and that the department’s school bus service is cleaning vehicles after every run.
Faculty and staff are putting together packets that could be sent home in case schools have to be closed, while the system has started tracking absences of students who report flu-like symptoms, Webb said.
A total of 100 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the U.S. across 13 states, according to the federal government. In New England, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have each had two confirmed cases, according to the Washington Post.
In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills recently formed a team of state officials to coordinate the response to coronavirus.