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Nearly a fifth of the 560 people in Maine who have tested positive for the coronavirus have been health care workers.
It’s one figure that state health officials keep track of as they respond to the coronavirus pandemic. As of Thursday morning, 97 of the state’s confirmed cases — or 18 percent — had been among people who worked in health care facilities, whether they were hands-on caregivers such as doctors and nurses or support staff such as janitors and administrators.
That fact that Maine has that information sets it apart from some larger states that have already been inundated by the pandemic. New York has had more than 110,000 cases of the virus, and Washington has had more than 7,500, but neither has kept tabs on how many of the infected were health care workers, according to the Associated Press.
Such data gathering could be an asset to the Pine Tree State as it continues to prepare for an anticipated surge of cases in the coming weeks.
Health experts have said that being able to detect a high number of infected health care workers could highlight the need for better protective gear or protocols, according to the AP. The data could also help researchers model how the virus will affect hospitals so they can ensure they have enough physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and other workers to handle a swell of sick patients.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has also said that the data help the state identify and contain outbreaks at specific facilities. “That’s a number we’re deeply concerned about,” he said during a Thursday press conference.
One such outbreak was discovered late this week at the Belfast retirement community where three workers and 10 residents have recently tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, including one resident in her 80s who died. Some individual cases have been reported among workers at hospitals in Lewiston and Rockport, a Portland medical practice, a Kennebunk cancer treatment center and the VA Maine Health Care System.
Yet there are also limitations to the state’s data. It doesn’t include whether the infected workers have been hospitalized or recovered, according to Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long. It also doesn’t record how many workers have been forced to quarantine themselves because of possible exposure to the virus.
So far, the number of sidelined health care workers has not been so great as to deprive Maine hospitals of the staff they need to contend with the pandemic. Hospitals employed more than 36,000 people in Maine as of late last year, according to the Department of Labor. But with those workers at a greater risk of catching COVID-19 themselves, it raises the question of whether that could happen at some point.
The state has one resource it could deploy in the event that a critical mass of Maine health care workers are sickened by the virus. More than 800 people with medical backgrounds have volunteered to help respond to the pandemic through Maine Responds, a pre-existing program in the state’s health department.
But Maine CDC does not have a target number of infected health care workers that would trigger the use of that program or additional measures, in part because a smaller hospital would be far more affected by “the loss of a few key employees,” according to Long.
“Maine CDC’s response plan is based on providing aid to those who need it when they identify those needs,” he said. “So a statewide baseline is less important than a plan to quickly address needs as our partners identify them.”
Besides that state program, it’s likely that Maine hospitals would have a few other options at their disposal to handle a staffing shortage, according to Dr. Jay Mullen, an emergency room doctor who runs BlueWater Health, a Brunswick-based company that staffs hospitals in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.
For one thing, many health care organizations have already delayed or canceled nonessential services to free up capacity ahead of a possible surge. That has left a number of providers from primary care, surgery or other departments free to reinforce the frontline providers who treat the respiratory problems afflicting patients with COVID-19, according to Mullen.
Additionally, Maine hospitals have been coordinating so that their doctors can be redeployed to other parts of the state if they are needed, Mullen said, and Gov. Janet Mills has also temporarily lifted some restrictions on the ability of medical providers licensed outside the state to work in Maine facilities.
“We talk to each other a lot,” Mullen said of ER doctors. “We can ask the questions being asked in New York right now: ‘Which of you guys has extra capacity, and can you send me some of your doctors?’”
In the worst-case scenarios that have been seen in places such as Italy and New York City, doctors have seen their shifts more than double in length and their time with patients cut in half, Mullen said.
To help avoid those grim conditions, he emphasized the need for state and federal officials to secure more personal protective gear for frontline workers to ensure they do not catch the virus themselves. He also stressed the need for Mainers to stay home and remain physically distant from each other to prevent the disease from rapidly spreading and overrunning the health care system.
Watch: Maine CDC press conference, April 9