What To Do If The Coronavirus Turns Up In Maine

Feb 28, 2020

Dr. Dora Mills is the former head of the Maine Center For Disease Control.
Credit Irwin Gratz / Maine Public

As concerns increase about the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, in the United States, Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz sat down with Dr. Dora Mills, former head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and now MaineHealth's chief health improvement officer, to discuss the virus's potential threat to Mainers. They talked about best practices for preventative and treatment care, as well as what symptoms actually look like.

GRATZ: We've been reporting a lot about the numbers of people who are infected, and the ways things might be spreading or not spreading. But for a lot of folks, I think the first question might be, what really is this?

DR. DORA MILLS: This particular type of coronavirus is causing an illness that's very similar to influenza, and that for many people, it causes a fairly mild illness. But for some people, it causes a very severe illness. The good news about it is that the preliminary data out of China is that about 80% of people actually have a fairly mild set of symptoms - milder than what influenza would cause - but about 20% get a much more severe illness.
 
What kind of symptoms are people going to see?

So people are getting sore throats, fevers, achiness, respiratory illness. So, coughing quite a bit and even sometimes diarrhea. But people with severe illness are getting really bad pneumonia, very severe pneumonia.

Is there any way for folks to recognize if they may be coming down with something like this and need to be further checked?

It does look and sound and smell very much like influenza. And here we have an influenza season that is longer lasting and is somewhat severe. So it is very important for people to get the flu shot if they haven't already, because at least that helps to know whether it might be flu or coronavirus. And it also helps keep you healthy. So we know that the people who are experiencing severe COVID-19 - or this novel coronavirus - tend to be people who are older than 60 and people who have chronic illnesses. But we know that if they've got the flu shot, then they're going to be healthier overall - they're not going to be suffering from influenza and then have coronavirus on top of that, within a few days or weeks.

So what, if anything, can people - or should people - be doing about that now?

You know, I'm a firm believer that we all should be prepared for whatever issue comes our way, whether it's a blizzard, or floods, or a pandemic. And, you know, the preparedness is really very similar. And this is the time to get prepared if you're not already. So, for instance, it is the same kind of preparedness that you would have for a prolonged blizzard. So we should all make sure, if we're able to, to have enough food, toiletries and supplies on hand to last one or two weeks, that we could live at home without encountering a lot of other people and going to the store and the like. In addition, we should also be prepared to help take care of household members who could get sick with it. As I mentioned, the vast majority of people with coronavirus - this novel coronavirus - are experiencing somewhat of a mild illness. But we do want them, for the most part, if they get sick to stay at home, and be home getting better at home, versus coming into the hospital - unless of course they're ill enough to be hospitalized. Again, the data from China indicates that most people are able to stay at home and get through this illness.

People want to know about - especially, perhaps, if someone becomes ill at home, or if someone they know becomes ill - what about masks?

So masks generally are good if you are coughing. So if the person is coughing, putting a mask on is very helpful because it helps to prevent the spread of germs. If you are trying to prevent yourself from getting sick from other people who are coughing, those kinds of masks that you see in the drugstore generally don't work to do that. You have to have the special kind of mask that we see in health care settings, and 95 respirators [also known as N95 masks]. But masks are not a bad idea to have on hand in case. If you have somebody in your household who's sick and you want to take care of them, then if they have a mask on when you're in the same room with them it helps protect you.

What are Maine health facilities doing to be prepared?

You know, hospitals across the state, including MaineHealth hospitals, we've all been working on getting prepared. And we've had pandemic flu preparedness plans in place for a number of years, so it's simply just double checking that list. So we've had, for instance, our supply chain people checking the pandemic flu supplies, the supplies of respirators and gloves and other kinds of supplies that we have. We've had our infection control practitioners working on making sure that they have everybody prepared in their hospitals to make sure that they can identify people who could have coronavirus early and get them into a private room and make sure that they get the care that they need right away.

You know, we talked about the fact that these are outbreaks and there's a presumption that at some point, it will pass. How does that happen?

What happens with any of these types of epidemics is that, generally speaking, the virus comes through - it's sort of like a brush fire. You know, we have it all the time with influenza every single season - a bunch of people get it. Some people are hospitalized. Most people just have to stay home and get better. And then the virus kind of wears itself out. It's attacked enough people, or it's been transmitted to enough people, that it then moves on to somewhere else. Now, I should mention that with this pandemic, as with any pandemic, the most predictable thing about pandemics is they're unpredictable. So, you know, this could fizzle. Every day that goes by, it seems less likely it's going to fizzle right away. It also could be, like a lot of other corona viruses, a seasonal virus, so it could continue to cause outbreaks as we're seeing across the world. And then as the summer warms up in the Northern Hemisphere, it could fizzle a bit and come back next winter. Or it may not be seasonal, in which case it could just continue to spread and cause these outbreaks in different parts of the world, including the United States.

Thanks again for your time. We appreciate it.

You're welcome Irwin. It's good to talk to you.

This interview was produced by Willis Ryder Arnold, and has been lightly edited for clarity.