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The federal government has awarded Maine $52.7 million to help it control the coronavirus pandemic by completing an expansion of its public health laboratory in Augusta, boosting laboratory capacity in the state’s rural hospitals and opening more satellite testing sites, according to the office of Gov. Janet Mills.
The funds will help the state to expand its staffing and testing capacity at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in Augusta, as well as to accelerate the construction of a new lab at the Greenlaw building of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus. The construction project, which started before the current pandemic, had been scheduled for completion in 2022. It was not immediately announced how much sooner that could happen.
“Investing in a state-of-the-art lab will facilitate COVID-19 response, innovation and public health generally in Maine,” Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said on Thursday.
In addition, the funds will help rural hospitals upgrade their labs to better respond to COVID-19 and other infectious disease outbreaks, according to Mills.
They will also be used to open more satellite locations outside of health care offices where Mainers can drive up and be tested for COVID-19. The state currently has 38 of those satellite testing locations, which generally require patients to schedule an appointment ahead of time but are sometimes called “drive-through testing sites.”
On Thursday, Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah said those sites have not seemed to account for a large share of the Maine’s testing for the coronavirus, but that his agency does not always know when tests have come in that way.
With the new federal funds, Mills hopes the state can partner with businesses and other entities to create new sites where people can drive up and have their noses swabbed so that they can be tested for the virus while minimizing their exposure to others.
The drive-through sites, Shah said, are an ideal way for those living in a household with someone infected with COVID-19 to get tested.
Maine health officials are still developing detailed plans for using the federal funds. They will be used as Maine starts to conduct a greater number of tests under a new partnership with the company IDEXX.
With that new capacity, the Maine CDC has just expanded testing to anyone suspected of having COVID-19. Because of the limited testing infrastructure that has so far been available, it previously advised health care providers to limit their testing to health care workers and the highest-risk patients.
But while the state can now run more tests, its health care providers are still trying to ramp up their ability to collect samples of the virus from patients. Some of them are still hindered by a lack of materials such as testing swabs and sterile tubes in which they can be transported to a lab.
Watch: Maine CDC coronavirus press conference, May 21