Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
Maine expanded testing capacity at its state laboratory to anyone suspected of having COVID-19 on Monday. But that doesn’t mean everyone who wants a test will immediately be able to get one.
On Tuesday, health care providers across Maine said they were still abiding by more restrictive guidelines for who can be tested as they figure out how far their testing supplies can stretch.
A spokesperson for Northern Light Health said many patients had been calling, wanting to be tested, ever since they learned the state Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory has tripled its testing capacity for COVID-19. The state laboratory will now test specimens from anyone with at least one symptom consistent with COVID-19, in addition to people without symptoms who might be at risk for transmitting COVID-19 to others. A clinician must order the test.
But just because the state laboratory has tripled the number of tests it’s able to perform doesn’t necessarily mean health care providers can collect triple the number of COVID-19 samples, local providers said. That’s because they might not have enough swabs to insert into patients’ nostrils to collect the specimen, or enough sterile tubes with transport media in them to preserve the swabs that will then be sent to a laboratory.
There has been a national shortage of swabs and transport media, but Maine recently received a large shipment of both from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and sent out the inventory to providers on Tuesday, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re shipping out a total of 19 orders comprising thousands and thousands of swabs as well as thousands and thousands of vials of transport media to a variety of health care providers,” Shah said. “Hospitals, long-term care facilities, skilled nursing facilities and outpatient clinics across the state are receiving those. We put those on an ASAP delivery.”
Northern Light Health, which has more than 1,000 providers and runs 10 hospitals from Portland to Presque Isle, is expecting to receive its shipment of 1,000 swabs and universal transport media this week, said Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for the health care system.
“Once the shipment of supplies arrives from the state, we will be able to re-evaluate our testing capabilities,” Spruce said.
It is likely that the health care system — the state’s second largest — will need to continue to prioritize testing for people who have symptoms and fall into a high-risk group: people who are hospitalized, health care workers, first responders, those in congregate living such as nursing homes, people over 60, and those with underlying medical conditions, Spruce said.
“We sincerely hope that people who fall outside this priority group and who request a test are understanding of our staff who may tell them we can’t accommodate their request,” she said.
Penobscot Community Health Care, which has primary care, medical specialty and walk-in centers at locations across Waldo, Penobscot and Somerset counties, is also trying to figure out how to accommodate more COVID-19 specimen collection.
“We are discussing how much we can expand with the supply of swabs we have,” said Noah Nesin, PCHC’s chief medical officer.
MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care system, which includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, is also “in the process of evaluating our options based on the new guidance,” said John Porter, a spokesperson. Clinicians will follow the current testing protocol until the health system can institute a “revised approach in the next few days.”
At least one hospital — Cary Medical Center in Caribou — is immediately planning to follow the Maine CDC’s recommendations to test a wider range of people, including anyone with symptoms and asymptomatic people with a known exposure to a COVID-19 case.
“Testing collection, we feel like we’re all set on that currently. If something changes with our supplier, that could change for us,” said Regen Gallagher, the hospital’s COVID-19 response leader.
In the western part of the state, Central Maine Healthcare’s criteria for testing are evolving. As of Wednesday, all hospitalized patients and those undergoing hospital-based procedures at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston will be tested for COVID-19, said Kate Carlisle, a spokesperson for the health care system. The same protocol will be rolled out at a later date at Bridgton Hospital and Rumford Hospital.
That means if people come to the emergency room at Central Maine Medical Center and have COVID-19 symptoms, they will be tested, Carlisle said. Similarly, all patients undergoing high-risk procedures will also be tested.
Watch: Cancer patient talks about life during coronavirus