A top official at Maine’s biggest health care system said guidelines teased by President Donald Trump on Thursday to rate counties by risk of coronavirus spread could promote a false sense of security as reported cases continue to rise.
In a letter to governors, Trump said the new guidelines are meant to enable state and local leaders to make “decisions about maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing.” States and municipalities would still retain the authority to set whatever restrictions deem necessary.
The president has indicated a desire to return to normalcy sooner to prevent economic damage, though it contradicts health experts who have warned against artificial timetables and said that unless Americans continue to limit social interaction, the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, leading to many more deaths.
“We all have to get smart,” Trump said on a conference call with governors, audio of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “We have to open up our country, I’m sorry.”
Gov. Janet Mills took part in the Thursday call, but she is honoring a White House request to keep details off the record, said spokeswoman Lindsay Crete. Mills “would like to hear more details from the White House before passing judgment” on the categorization plan, Crete said, restating Mills’ concern about a testing backlog and a shortage of protective equipment.
But Dora Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, a former Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director and the governor’s sister, said a new type of reporting might lead people to think they are safe from the virus depending on where they live.
She said that notion is dangerous considering how easily the virus can spread and worried that any messaging otherwise might lead people to think they are not at risk. Nirav Shah, the current Maine CDC director, has told all Mainers to live as if the virus is in their communities.
The virus “doesn’t see county borders,” Dora Mills said. “It doesn’t see political boundaries. It doesn’t see state borders. It hits everybody.”
The governor has stopped shy of instituting a stay-in-place policy for the state as reported cases increased to 155 in 11 counties as of Thursday, with evidence of community transmission in Cumberland and York counties. Janet Mills has closed nonessential businesses, limited restaurants and bars to takeout and delivery service and banned social gatherings of more than 10 people.
That is on top of stay-at-home orders in cities including Portland, South Portland and Brunswick and advisories from top health officials to limit social contact by staying out of high-traffic public areas as much as possible except to work or shop for necessities.
“There are folks out there who might be thinking, ‘Well, it’s not in my county yet,’” Shah told reporters on Thursday. “Now is the time, even if your county is not on the board.”
Trump has been seeking for days to determine how to contain the economic fallout of the guidelines issued by his administration as well as local leaders to slow the tide of infections.
Last week he unveiled a 15-day program advising against large gatherings and calling for many Americans to remain at home — and many states have placed even greater restrictions on their residents. He told Fox News on Tuesday he hopes to “reopen” the county by Easter, which is just over two weeks away. But scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, have cautioned against artificial timetables.
“And you’ve got to understand that you don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline,” Fauci told CNN Wednesday. “So you’ve got to respond, in what you see happen.”
Zeke Miller of the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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