Local, county and state officials from the greater Portland area met Wednesday to strategize and coordinate preparations for any possible outbreak of the new coronavirus. The safety of the public and of public servants alike is top-of-mind.
In a small conference room, Kristine Jenkins, Cumberland County's liaison with the state Center for Disease Control, repeatedly held up a poster-board that sums up the public health message: "WASH YOUR HANDS" it said in bold, with other advice on hygiene below.
"In New England we have had cases in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, so we really know that it's just a matter of time before we have some cases in Maine."
And Dora Anne Mills, the chief of public health at MaineHealth, the state's largest hospital system, urged attendees to actively promote the hygiene message, because if enough people respond, the disease's spread can be slowed.
"Washing hands actually can reduce viral transmission up to 20-50 percent, and we think it's particularly helpful with corona-viruses,” says Mills. “We know it's helpful with other coronaviruses... the whole goal of those is to flatten the epidemic curve."
Mills said the elderly are more at risk of severe illness from the virus, and noted that Maine’s median age is 45, while China’s is 39. “We are the oldest state in the nation," she said. "I worry about the impact on our seniors.”
But how best to get the latest message out? State-level officials suggested that with a fast-moving public health issue like COVID-19 , the most effective strategy is to refer people to updated information at websites run by the Maine or federal CDC.
But Barry Tibbetts, Windham's Town Manager says that in the oldest state in the nation, many senior citizens may not be attuned to the internet. Why not, he asked, create a standardized flyer that each municipality could include in this year's tax mailings?
"Particularly the elderly that don't have email electronic access,” says Tibbetts. “But they will get their tax bill. That we do very well."
Windham resident and Portland business owner Jared Maxwell called for a single-page “best hygiene practices” poster that businesses and other institutions can display to help reduce transmission. “People shouldn’t take it personally when we don’t shake your hand,” Maxwell said.
Should a local outbreak of any scale occur, employers, including municipalities, should prepare now to be able to provide continuity of service, says Joe Chappell, the director of the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency. It's time to dust off plans that most communities have already created, he says.
"This is an opportune time to look at those, because before we get significantly impacted, how are we going to operate with reduced manpower? How are we going to operate if we lose people to sickness (and) they have to be out for a couple of weeks? We don't want them to come into work and impact other folks."
And he stressed that having a plan is one thing - but that it is also important to give those plans a dry-run before they are needed.
"We have laptops. Have you tried them? Have your employees tried them? Have you tried to access the remote desktop in a remote facility not your office?” says Chappell. “Those are things we have time to do now. If you have these plans, go forward now."
Some officials say it is important to make sure that town offices and other facilities are safe for both the public and staff. Freeport municipal officer Joanne Hanselman says that means letting workers know that right now constant attention to keeping public spaces clean is the order of the day.
“I think that if we go in, and really do the things that you've told us to do. So I think if we really specifically talk with them and make it one-on-one conversations think that will help them to keep the areas clean."
Hanselman added that residents should be encouraged to do municipal business from home when they can.
"So rather than coming in, although we love seeing them, to register your dog online, you can pay your taxes online, so really to encourage our residents to get their services through online."
One other question: how to help employees who may have to stay home to care for children when schools are closed or because there is a general quarantine imposed? One participant said towns should take a look at policies they may have or want to have that would allow employees to donate accrued time off for other workers.
Municipalities could be forced to address a host of such issues in the coming weeks. Officials from the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which convened the meeting, has promised to act as a coordinator and clearinghouse for shared solutions.
Originally published March 4, 2020 at 9:24 a.m. ET.