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How Maine Hospitals And Health Officials Are Preparing For A Potential Coronavirus Outbreak

Thomas Northcut
Getty Images via NPR
As federal health officials warn that more cases of the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus will likely erupt in the United States, health officials in Maine are preparing.

As federal health officials warn that more cases of the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus will likely erupt in the United States, health officials in Maine are preparing. Maine hospitals and the state Center for Disease Control are taking steps to identify and contain the coronavirus, should it land on Maine's doorstep.

Hospitals are on high alert, says Dr. Robert Pinsky. He's an infectious disease specialist at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.

"I even had someone come into one of the walk-in care sites today where there was concern."

The patient was ill and had recently traveled to an area with the coronavirus. Tests revealed the patient had the flu. Pinsky says the example highlights that hospital protocol — which includes quickly identifying or ruling out potential cases of the new coronavirus — is working.

"Everything went just according to the plans we've been making for months, even years, to prepare for pandemic situations like this," Pinsky says.

The hospital's protocol is also aimed at protecting staff. That means preparing for a potential shortage of protective equipment. Kathy Knight, the director of Northern Light Health's Center for Emergency Preparedness, says much of the supplies of respirators, gowns, gloves and masks that hospitals need are manufactured in China, which is dealing with its own outbreak. If Northern Light's supply runs low, says Knight, the health system will activate contingency plans.

"Identify, potentially, services that can be suspended temporarily, or ratcheted down a little bit," says Knight.

At MaineHealth, Chief Health Improvement Officer Dr. Dora Mills says they're also keeping tabs on supplies. And she says experts in infection control are educating staff across all hospitals.

"To make sure they can identify people who could have coronavirus early and get them into a private room and make sure they get the care they need right away," Mills says.

If the coronavirus infects a significant number of staff at a hospital, health system officials say they can shuffle employees from other locations.

John Alexander is Chief Medical Officer at Central Maine Healthcare. "If some members of our staff or some part of our system had a shortage of staff, we are able to be flexible enough to have staff, whether it's nurses, providers, technicians, or others, move and help out," he says.

At the state level, Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah says his agency has a team dedicated to evaluating the evolving coronavirus situation and how it could affect Maine. He says the agency is waiting for laboratory test kits to identify the new disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19.

"Being able to test within the state of Maine is critical," Shah says.

Most states have had to send samples to the U.S. CDC for testing, after the agency recalled flawed test kits it initially distributed to states, including Maine. Shah says he hopes that new kits will be released within a week.

As health officials prepare for the coronavirus, Shah says there are steps the public can take. They include eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep, washing hands frequently and getting the flu shot.

“Getting the flu shot is good for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that if the coronavirus were to become a significant concern here in Maine, the more people we can keep out of the hospital because they've been vaccinated for the flu and thus don't have the flu, it means that the overall strain on the system is reduced," says Shah.

And hospital officials advise those who experience symptoms such as a fever and cough and are concerned to call their local clinic or doctor first. That will help staff prepare should they need to come into the hospital.