Hospitals and doctors’ offices aren’t alone in preparing for a possible coronavirus outbreak in Maine. State and local governments, schools and colleges also are getting ready or taking actions such as canceling international study programs.

Fourteen University of Maine System students are being evacuated from Italy as the coronavirus spreads in northern Italy. Other overseas travel is under review or restricted, and at the local level school systems are reaching out to parents with public health messages.

Gov. Janet Mills convened a Coronavirus Response Team on Monday to make sure Maine is prepared for any possible outbreaks. Leading the team is Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The response team also will consist of officials from the departments of Health and Human Services; Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management; and Public Safety, as well as other state officials.

“While there are no cases of coronavirus in Maine as of today, and the risk to our state remains low, the state must be prepared to respond swiftly and effectively to any potential cases in Maine,” Mills said in a statement. “The Coronavirus Response Team, led by Dr. Shah, will build on our preparation and response efforts, coordinate across state government and ensure that we are taking every precaution necessary in partnership with local health officials, hospitals, school districts, municipalities and others to make sure Maine is fully prepared, and to fully inform and protect all Maine people.”

The virus – COVID-19 – was first reported in Wuhan, China, and has spread rapidly in China and now into Europe, including more than 88,000 confirmed cases worldwide and at least 3,000 deaths. There have been more than 100 cases in the United States – and six deaths – but none yet in Maine. New Hampshire officials reported the state’s first confirmed case Monday, saying a hospital employee who recently traveled to Italy tested positive.

Shah said “as we keep working to minimize the risk of community spread, the best thing Maine people can do is take common-sense steps to stay healthy, such as frequent hand washing.”

Novel coronavirus symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. While the flu is far more prevalent in the United States, the novel coronavirus is more lethal and more contagious than influenza, scientists say.

With more than 900 cases in northern Italy, 14 students from the University of Maine who were studying in Italy are being sent home. The students were studying in Florence, Torino, Reggio Emilia and Viterbo.

Also, a planned trip to China by University of Southern Maine students in July is imperiled. The trip will be canceled if the current travel restrictions to China remain in place.

“The University of Maine has 14 students in Italy who are studying abroad through three programs affiliated with the university,” said Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the University of Maine System. “Those study abroad programs in Italy decided to close and evacuate students by March 10 when the State Department issued a Level 3 advisory for that country on Feb. 29. Those study abroad programs are now exploring online coursework so the students can complete their credits.”

The University of Maine System currently has 109 students and faculty members studying or working in some capacity outside of the United States, but only one is in China, a faculty member who teaches online courses.

The system is now banning any university travel to China, South Korea, Italy and Iran, following federal recommendations. With zero cases in Maine, and still minimal cases in the United States, the virus has not yet meant any disruptions at University of Maine System campuses.

“We have world-class health officials here at the Maine Center for Disease Control and across the country tracking the coronavirus and working on medical advances and precautions to halt the spread of the disease,” said Dannel Malloy, chancellor of the University of Maine System. “At our universities we are focused first on supporting our students and faculty who have been traveling abroad and making sure we keep everyone informed.”

Meanwhile, local school departments, working with the Maine CDC and Maine Department of Education, are sending out notices to parents about students practicing proper hygiene and staying home when ill. Some of the schools that sent letters to parents include Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Freeport, Brunswick and Yarmouth.

“In general, whenever there is a pattern of illness in a school that meets certain criteria or incidence as defined by Maine CDC, we are in touch with them to seek guidance,” South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin wrote. “This has been true in the past for issues such as pertussis and is true if there is a pattern of flu-like illnesses of unknown source. Based upon their guidance and directives we organize our response.”

Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman, said of the school letters, “Part of the work that Maine CDC has been doing during the past two months has been to share resources about COVID-19 to ensure that Maine people have accurate, up-to-date information.”

Local governments also are stepping up to prepare, said Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. A planning meeting will be held 7:30 a.m. Wednesday at the council’s Portland offices.

“We need to be ready for whatever level of outbreak we might see,” Egan said, noting that something as simple as preparing some government workers to work from home could be helpful to slow the spread of the disease.

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