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Maine Hospitals Ramp Up Services To Meet Demand For Coronavirus Tests

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
A tent outside Central Maine Health Care in Lewiston

Maine now has two presumptive positive cases of the illness caused by the new coronavirus. A third preliminary positive case is still being examined. The individuals are from Androscoggin and Cumberland counties. With more cases of COVID-19 expected to develop, hospitals are ramping up to meet demand and advising who should get tested and where.

Testing for COVID-19 isn't simple, says Dr. Dora Mills. She is the chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth. At a daily press briefing Friday, Mills explained that the test for the illness involves two swabs: one in the back of the throat, the other in the nose. And the person conducting the test has to be dressed in personal protective equipment from head to toe, which includes a mask, "an eye shield, a gown, gloves, etcetera. And they have to be in a room that you can then, after the test, take offline for a couple of hours and disinfect."

What Mainers Need To Know About The Coronavirus

Given the amount of protective equipment required, Mills says, doctors are being judicious when deciding who to test.

"We have adequate supplies right now, but we want to ensure that we maintain adequate supplies, particularly as this virus may ramp up here."

Currently, she says, most doctors in Maine consider a patient's symptoms and exposure.

"If somebody has the symptoms of a cough, fever or shortness of breath, and they have traveled from a place where there have been significant outbreaks — and that is a list that continues to expand, including Boston and New York."

Or, she says, if the patient has been in close contact with somebody who has a known COVID-19 infection. Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah says anyone who has symptoms and thinks they may have COVID-19 should first call their doctor.

"We do not recommend that you go to the ER. We ask that you call your doctor's office, or an urgent care facility first."

Still, hospitals are gearing up to offer testing sites that keep people with possible COVID-19 cases out of waiting rooms with other patients. Central Maine Health Care established satellite testing Friday at all three of its hospitals in Lewiston, Bridgton and Rumford. Spokesperson Kate Carlisle says they're in tents outfitted with lab equipment, just steps away from emergency departments.

"We are also looking into the possibility of equipping other remote facilities that are in our network with these sites."

MaineGeneral in Augusta is working to establish drive-through screening for high-risk patients, according to a spokesperson. Northern Light Health also expects to offer drive-up screening in several communities beginning next week. And Dr. Mills says MaineHealth's hospitals are setting up specific testing sites.

MaineHealth has also started conducting tests through its lab, NorDx, to boost the state's capacity.

"So it's not the same test kit that U.S. CDC has been distributing. It's a different type of test kit some other states are using."

Northern Light Health says its labs will have the ability to run COVID-19 tests within a few weeks. State CDC director Dr. Shah says Maine has the ability to conduct roughly 1,000 tests from the kit it received from the U.S. CDC. As of Friday, about 100 had been used, and Shah expects more kits will be needed.

"What we are doing right now is working with the U.S. CDC to make sure we put in our order for any subsequent test kits now, so we don't have any discontinuities, or disruptions in testing."

As health systems prepare for more cases, Shah urges older adults and those with chronic conditions to also prepare by having adequate supplies, including medications to last two weeks.