The first presumptive case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has been identified in Maine.
At a midday press conference in Augusta Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills announced steps the state is taking to reduce spread of the virus that has caused a global pandemic and is now hitting home.
Speaking in the State House Cabinet room, Governor Mills told a crowd of reporters that test results for the first presumptive positive case in Maine came in that morning.
"The individual who tested positive, presumptive positive, is a woman in her fifties who lives in Androscoggin County."
The case is presumptive positive until it is confirmed by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Mills says the woman is quarantined at home, and that public health officials are investigating the woman's travel history and possible community exposure.
The Governor declined to provide additional details, but Kate Carlisle, a spokesperson for Central Maine Health Care, later confirmed by phone that the woman was tested at Central Maine Medical Center's emergency department on Tuesday. Carlisle says the woman recently traveled to a country experiencing an outbreak of the coronavirus. After returning home, she developed respiratory symptoms and self-isolated until she was tested for COVID-19.
In light of this first presumptive case in the state, Governor Mills proclaimed an insurance emergency. The action requires insurers to cover costs related to testing for the coronavirus. Mills says the state Department of Health and Human Services is also issuing emergency rules to ensure MaineCare coverage.
"Cost should not be an obstacle for anyone seeking a diagnosis or health care treatment for COVID-19," says Mills
Mills is also suspending all non-essential out-of-state work travel for state employees for the next 30 days. And she's recommending that all indoor events of 250 people or more be postponed for the next 30 days.
Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine CDC, says the state needs to seize the opportunity to delay the onset — and flatten the curve — of a potential outbreak.
"Measures such as these limitations on large gatherings are most effective when they're implemented before a community experiences widespread community transmission,” says Shah. “That is the situation we are in right now."
This kind of social distancing, Shah says, is the strongest tool the state has to combat the coronavirus. Unlike the flu, there's no vaccine or immunity against COVID-19, and the virus that causes it spreads easily through coughs and sneezes. Shah says he's particularly concerned about individuals in long-term care facilities, who are at highest risk for contracting the disease because of their age and underlying medical conditions. But for now, Shah says the CDC recommends nursing homes only screen guests — not suspend visits.
"Visitors in long term care facilities are an essential part of preventing social isolation of the very residents there. We also recognize that visitors can be effective advocates for the residents in those homes. So we have to balance those things."
When asked what steps businesses should take to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Governor Mills says she suggested to the Maine State Chamber of Commerce to encourage employees to work from home if possible. She urges businesses to be generous with their leave policies.
Mills also reminded individuals to take precautions for themselves and their communities: to wash hands regularly with soap and water, avoid visiting older people in person, and to stay home when sick.
"To the people of Maine, take care of yourselves, stay safe. Stay healthy. We will get through this."
As of Thursday, 86 people in Maine have been tested for COVID-19. One presumptive positive, 65 negative and 20 tests still pending.