As of 1 p.m. Friday, March 13, test results show that two Maine residents have tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.
With the coronavirus rapidly spreading across the U.S. and more than 100 confirmed cases elsewhere in New England, Maine’s hospitals say that they have been preparing for its expected arrival in the state, even if they do not know how soon it will be.
They’ve been taking stock of supplies such as face masks, respirators and ventilators, isolating patients who exhibit symptoms associated with the virus and regularly consulting with government health officials and other hospitals about the spread of the illness.
Many of those preparations are no different from what they have done in response to flu season and previous pandemics.
But unlike with influenza, hospital administrators also said that there is still great uncertainty about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and that there is particular concern for its effects on vulnerable populations such as those with suppressed immune systems.
“The community should feel very comfortable that health care providers [in Bangor] are used to planning for” similar scenarios, said Mary Prybylo, president and CEO of St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor. “We are prepared, but we know it’s evolving and changing.”
As an example of the way that St. Joe’s has had to adjust its response to the illness, Prybylo said the hospital previously screened patients for COVID-19 by isolating them in a room, assessing them for the infection and then treating them. Now, the hospital is encouraging patients to not come to the emergency department, but to call ahead for their screening.
While no cases of COVID-19 have been detected yet in Maine, health officials expect it to arrive here eventually. There is “every reason to believe” there will be a confirmed case in Maine, Jeff Doran, vice president of clinical services for Northern Light Health, a group of 10 Maine hospitals headquartered in Brewer, said last week after a briefing from state health officials.
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this week that there is a “possibility” it is circulating here already and that hospitals have been advised to prepare as though it is.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 42 of the 47 tests done by the state had come back negative and five were still pending. But the number of confirmed cases elsewhere in New England has swelled to more than 100 in just a few days — with 92 of them in Massachusetts — according to the New York Times.
Representatives from some of the state’s hospitals said they have been considering what resources might be in short supply if there was an influx of patients, whether it is beds, staffing or oxygen tanks.
For example, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor has been identifying areas in the hospital where groups of patients with the same respiratory infection could be isolated and treated while minimizing the spread of their illness, according to Dr. James Jarvis, EMMC’s senior vice president and senior physician executive.
“We’ve already prepared to do those things if we had a bad outbreak” of an illness, Jarvis said. “We have the ability to do that. It’s a matter of scaling that to meet the needs of the community.”
If there was a surge of cases of COVID-19 somewhere in Maine, it could put a strain on certain types of supplies such as specialized face masks, according to both Jarvis and Prybylo. Mask shortages have been a particular problem at hospitals in Washington state, which has been heavily hit by the virus, according to the Washington Post.
To that end, Jarvis and Pybylo said their hospitals have been keeping close tabs on their inventory and are prepared to work with suppliers if such a shortage appears to be on the horizon. It’s also been on the radar of MaineHealth, the parent group of Maine Medical Center in Portland and several other hospitals across the state.
“We have plans in place and stockpiles of extra supplies in place for events like this,” said John Porter, MaineHealth’s associate vice president of communications and public affairs.
But without any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine, hospital administrators said they have not yet taken more serious steps to expand their capacity, such as delaying elective procedures in order to free up patient beds or bringing in nurses from affiliated facilities.
They also urged Mainers to focus on preventive measures, such as washing their hands frequently and coughing into their elbows. They encouraged anyone worried they may have a virus to stay home from work and to call their health care providers rather than showing up in person.
Prybylo also cautioned anyone with chronic illnesses or poor immune systems to avoid large crowds. “I would probably not go to the hockey game at UMaine,” she said. “I wouldn’t go to New York City. I would try and stay away from large crowds. If I was a regular goer to church or synagogue, I might decide to stay at home.”
Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus