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Officials Urge Public To Stay Distant, Mask Up To Avoid Overwhelming Maine Hospitals

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
A tester speaks to a patient at a mobile testing location for COVID-19, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Auburn, Maine.

Maine hospitals stressed by a surge in COVID-19 patients are asking the public to do better at follow the safety precautions that public health officials have been espousing for months.

Hospital administrators say they could soon face the kinds of dire situations hospitals in other states are dealing with, unless more people are diligent about wearing masks, keeping distance and avoiding gatherings.

Leaders from Northern Light Health, Central Maine Healthcare and MaineGeneral Health joined together for a virtual press conference to present a united, urgent message to the public.

“As health care workers, our pledge to you is that we come to work every day and give our best in order to keep you and your family safe and healthy. But we need your help so we can continue caring for all patients in need,” said Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health.

The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 across the state continues to tick upward on a daily basis, with 173 hospitalizations as of Wednesday. More than 40 of those patients are at Northern Light hospitals, which have already implemented surge plans. Jarvis says there are dire predictions that hospitals could become overwhelmed by Christmastime.

“We also don’t want to see what’s happened in other parts of the country, where right now they’re building external hospitals but don’t have staff to staff them, and therefore patients aren’t being cared for. We don’t want to see loads of patients that are literally dying in our hospitals. That’s what we’re scared of. That’s why we’re here. Because we want to prevent that from happening,” he says.

Staffing levels are already tight. And even though the jobs of doctors, nurses, and others are more demanding than ever, Dr. John Alexander of Central Maine Healthcare says staff also struggle when they’re sidelined and have to stay home because they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 in the community.

“That presents a little bit of an emotional crisis for that individual, right? People who come to work in a health care setting do so because they want to take care of patients. They do so because they want to take care of our community,” he says.

And the community needs to take care of them, says Dr. Steve Diaz, chief medical officer of MaineGeneral Health. But he says he still witnesses people who ignore safety measures.

“We see many people either not masking still, or wearing other types of devices that aren’t really sanctioned and are woefully inadequate,” he says.

Dr. Nirav Shah of the state CDC underscored the pleas of hospital leaders in a separate briefing on Wednesday. Vaccinations for COVID-19 are on the horizon, but Shah cautioned that the success of that effort will depend on how widespread the virus is in Maine.

“A vaccine for COVID is maximally effective when it is introduced into a community where the virus is better controlled,” he says.

And Dr. Diaz of MaineGeneral Health says we already know how to get it under control: keep distance, avoid gatherings, wash hands frequently and mask up.

“Option A of all these things is the only thing that’s going to help,” he says.