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Maine CDC Moves To Virtual Daily Briefing After 7 Workers Exhibit COVID-19 Symptoms

Nick Woodward
Maine Public
The media briefing room at the Maine Emergency Management Agency in Augusta on March 25, 2020.

On a day when the Maine Center for Disease Control is reporting 52 new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths, state officials were forced to deal with the possibility that the virus has infected part of its response team.

Thursday morning began with seven employees in the state's Emergency Operations Center calling out sick. Three work for the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), two work for the Maine CDC and two others are National Guard members.

"They had similar conditions where there was fever, chills,” says MEMA Director Peter Rogers during a Thursday press briefing. “Some of them had aches and pains and some joint fatigue."

Such flu-like symptoms are consistent with symptoms of COVID-19, raising the prospect that half of the state's onsite response team at MEMA has been infected.

Testing of those workers was underway Thursday, and results are expected as early as Friday.

"We have prepared for this," says MEMA Director Peter Rogers. "We work hard to do it. We're working today. We'll be working tomorrow."

In the meantime, Rogers, who works in the same facility as the affected workers, was forced to work from home.

So was CDC Director Nirav Shah, who works part of his day out of the same facility and holds the daily press briefing from there, too. Neither Shah nor Rogers believe they have come in close contact with the affected workers, but both held Thursday's press briefing via an internet conferencing service.

"I would just like to repeat that there's been no interruption in the state's response to COVID-19. We plan for continuity of operations situations and this is one of those situations," he said.

In a press statement, the CDC said Gov. Janet Mills and members of her cabinet have not had close contact with the sick workers. The governor led Wednesday's press briefing from the MEMA offices, and she was joined by Health Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Economic Development Chief Heather Johnson.

Nevertheless it's unclear how the seven workers got sick at the same time.

MEMA director Peter Rogers says the workers mainly play an administrative role and do not work in the field. And he says all of the 14-member response team members are screened daily for symptoms and work at physically distanced tables inside of a large room.

"The folks that have identified are all from different pods, so the distancing is interesting," he said.

The MEMA offices are tucked inside a large building that is home to several state agencies, including the Maine Labor Department. But according to the CDC, officials do not believe that sick employees had close contact with workers from other agencies.

Patty Wight contributed to this report.

Updated 3:07 p.m. May 28, 2020

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.