The Department of Health and Human Services closed its office in Maine’s second-largest city on Wednesday after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus, and the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention warned that a rapid increase in cases isn’t over.
The department worker in Lewiston was one of several dozen new cases recorded in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of positive cases to more than 140 in Maine, said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC.
“This increase in cases is not a surprise. And I want to be really candid: We expect that it will continue. As in any outbreak, there’s a portion of the outbreak where there’s a rapid uptick in cases. We’ve seen that in other countries. That’s what we have been planning for, and we’re now in the thick of it,” Shah told reporters in Augusta.
Only about 25 percent of the office’s staff were in the building, and four clients visited the office on Tuesday. Earlier this month, an average of more than 140 clients visited daily.
As part of its investigation, which may take days to complete, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will notify anyone who may have had close contact with the employee and advise them on appropriate precautions, including whether testing is necessary.
The affected employee’s role did not involve visiting clients at their homes or significant engagement with the public in the office. DHHS did not release further information about the employee, a woman who tested positive.
Shah warned people to continue to take the threat seriously, telling reporters that the virus spreads more easily than the flu and that it’s five to 20 times more deadly, based on available data.
As for the health office, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew told reporters she made the decision to immediately close the office in Lewiston to protect workers and to protect the public.
The Lewiston DHHS office closed in accordance with policy that applies to all state government facilities affected by a confirmed case of COVID-19. As part of these protocols, the Lewiston office will be cleaned and sanitized according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The office may reopen in the coming days, and the 16 other DHHS offices remain open at this time for paperwork drop-offs only. This can be done from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Most DHHS staff are now working remotely, as part of the Mills administration’s response to COVID-19. The Department of Administrative and Financial Services estimates that approximately 70 percent of State employees — excluding emergency and public safety personnel — are currently working remotely.
The announcements Wednesday came a day after Gov. Janet Mills ordered nonessential businesses shut down for two weeks. Some communities including Portland, Maine’s largest city, have taken even more drastic steps, asking people to stay at home.
On Wednesday, the Mills administration took additional steps to promote access to health care by making it easier for health care providers to work via telemedicine and to renew their licenses. There also is a provision to reactivate licenses immediately with no fee.
The availability of supplies for those medical workers continues to be a concern. The state has received additional personal protective equipment from the national stockpile but more is needed, Shah said.
Shah also expressed concern about people’s mental health as they deal with stress surrounding the pandemic.
“We’ve talked about a lot of those things that we need. But probably above everything else what we need is compassion and kindness. So I ask everyone to focus on those,” he said.
BDN writer Natalie Williams contributed to this report.
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease