Although no cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed yet in Maine, LincolnHealth is preparing for what health officials see as a likely spread in the state and the county.
Health experts have said the coronavirus is particularly dangerous to the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert on Monday to long-term care facilities, nursing homes, and other health facilities.
The vulnerability of older patients is particularly relevant in Lincoln County, where 27.7% of the population is 65 or older, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
“We’re operating under the assumption that (the coronavirus) will spread; we just have to be prepared when it does,” Dr. Timothy Fox, chief medical officer at LincolnHealth, said in a phone interview Tuesday, March 10.
Fox said the hospital engages in pandemic planning year-round for a situation such as the coronavirus outbreak, but staff are now holding weekly meetings in preparation and are continually coordinating with MaineHealth on response procedures.
The Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency issued a statement Tuesday, March 10 explaining that the agency is implementing policies and procedures to prepare for an outbreak of the coronavirus.
If an outbreak occurs, the agency will activate its emergency operations center and “maintain situational awareness by regularly communicating and collaborating with each municipality’s local EMA director, public safety agency, other counties, Maine CDC, and the Maine Emergency Management Agency,” the statement reads.
The coronavirus, which originally appeared in Wuhan, China, has spread to more than 90 countries, 35 states in the U.S., and the District of Columbia. The virus, named SARS-CoV-2, has infected 113,702 people, as of press time, with the respiratory illness COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
So far, the disease has killed more than 4,012 worldwide, a fatality rate of approximately 3.61%.
Fox also said that older people and those with underlying health conditions are impacted most by COVID-19.
Damariscotta resident Michael Bucci, 72, said he is taking special precautions because he has multiple sclerosis and a compromised immune system.
Bucci is not going out unless it is medically necessary. A friend has offered to deliver groceries.
Bucci said he also follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of washing hands, avoiding direct personal contact, avoiding shaking hands, and continually cleaning surfaces.
A letter from Fox offers additional preventive measures residents can take, such as staying home when sick; not touching the eyes, nose, or mouth; and covering coughs or sneezes with a tissue and throwing the tissue away.
Fox said there are no special precautions that more vulnerable populations, like older residents, currently need to take. He said if an outbreak occurs, he would recommend that senior citizens stay home and avoid person-to-person contact, like Bucci is doing.
Fox said LincolnHealth’s Miles Campus has seen two patients who thought they may have been exposed to the virus and one patient’s test has been sent to either the Maine CDC or the U.S. CDC for analysis.
Fox said the other patient was cleared after the physician consulted with the U.S. CDC about the patient’s risk.
According to Fox, as of March 10, LincolnHealth will be sending any further tests for COVID-19 to NorDx Laboratories in Scarborough, which will be testing in batches that allow for a one- or two-day turnaround time, depending on when tests are received.
Fox said the Maine CDC’s current turnaround time is two to five days.
Fox said that if a “presumptive positive” case is detected, the sample will be sent to the Maine CDC for confirmation, then to the federal CDC in Atlanta for final confirmation. If the sample tests negative at any point, the patient will be declared negative.
According to the Maine CDC, there are currently no confirmed or presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Maine. The agency says 20 tests for COVID-19 in Maine have come back negative and test results for five other individuals are pending.
However, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah has said it is highly likely COVID-19 will arrive in Maine and the risk is growing daily. The agency has been preparing for weeks, he said.
Shah has urged Mainers to stay healthy by eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
In the event of an outbreak in Maine and the need for mass testing, Fox said alternative testing sites separate from LincolnHealth’s Miles Campus may become necessary.
Fox said the most important message he wants to send to the public is that patients should first call their primary care physician if they have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, rather than show up to a hospital or a walk-in clinic without warning.
The primary care physician will ask basic screening questions to determine next steps, according to a letter from Fox in this edition.
The U.S. CDC has authorized physicians to order tests for patients if they deem it necessary.
Fox’s letter outlines what experts believe about the coronavirus so far: it spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets and to get it, one must be exposed to someone who has returned from an area with widespread or ongoing community spread or have close contact with a person known to have it.
Countries currently listed by the U.S. CDC as having a widespread or ongoing community transmission are China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, and Japan.
The Lincoln Home, a retirement community in Newcastle, has canceled its weekly bridge games over concerns about transmission of the coronavirus.
Separately, Fox said, the Cove’s Edge long-term care center is currently closed to visitors because of an influenza outbreak.
The AOS 93 school district and Lincoln Academy have issued statements concerning the coronavirus. Both are taking precautions and closely monitoring the situation.
LA restricted student travel during February vacation and is strongly recommending that residential students not travel internationally over April vacation. LA also canceled an International Club trip to France that was scheduled for April.
LA Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kelley Duffy is working with Technology Coordinator Stephanie Cheney to make plans for continuing classes remotely if necessary, according to the school’s statement.
AOS 93 is working closely with LincolnHealth and the Maine Department of Education. The Damariscotta-based district is still in “prevention/precaution mode,” according to a statement.
Staff will continue to perform routine and enhanced environmental cleaning in high-touch areas at school and on buses.
For the most up-to-date information on the coronavirus from LincolnHealth, visit lincolnhealthme.org.