Maine is one of five states not authorized to conduct in-state testing of people suspected of having coronavirus, an upper respiratory illness that originated in China and is rapidly spreading across the globe.

Nirav Shah

“We think that every clinician needs to be prepared for the possibility that the patient they might be seeing may have coronavirus,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on Friday. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

As of Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Maine, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Wyoming as states that are still setting up in-state laboratories capable of running coronavirus diagnostic tests.

Meanwhile, state health officials say Maine has been relying on the U.S. CDC’s laboratory in Atlanta to process samples taken from the 18 residents who have been or are currently being tested for the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19.

While “a handful” were originally quarantined, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center of Disease Control and Prevention, said most of the dozen or so people currently being tested are isolated at home, while others were hospitalized. He declined to provide more specific information, citing patient privacy.

So far, no one in Maine has tested positive, but Shah said Friday that it’s just a matter of time.

“Risk of coronavirus in Maine is increasing,” Shah said in a phone interview. “We think that every clinician needs to be prepared for the possibility that the patient they might be seeing may have coronavirus.”

Although Maine is one of only five states still without the authorization to test for the virus in-state, Shah touted the state’s preparedness to handle the burgeoning threat. Shah said he has been tracking the virus and discussing response plans with other health officials in Maine and across the country since December.

He said Maine received its testing equipment on Tuesday and was granted permission from the U.S. CDC to begin manually extracting the suspected virus from samples on Friday. Shah said the state expects to have its automated extraction unit cleared for use by Monday, if not sooner. Once that occurs, Maine will send only its positive test results to the U.S. CDC for confirmation.

“The benefit of doing the test in-state is really the avoidance of having to transport the sample down to the CDC,” Shah said. “I know that it’s faster (in-state), but we don’t know how many hours faster.”

Shah said saving even 12 hours is important, “especially if we’re trying to rule people out and let them get back to their lives. It does matter.”

The Maine CDC announced Thursday that it had received a testing kit that would allow for between 500 and 700 tests and new testing equipment, which was purchased with $58,000 in unspent federal funding allocated by the Legislature last week through an emergency appropriation.

Cokie Giles, the president of the Maine State Nurses Association, questioned whether one testing kit that allows for 500-700 tests to be conducted is enough in a state where one-fifth of the state’s 1.3 million people are over 65 – an age group that has been especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“That doesn’t seem to be enough to go around,” Giles said.

She said Maine’s nurses are concerned about having the supplies they need to protect themselves from infection while they treat patients. Giles said hospitals receive many of their supplies from China, the epicenter of the outbreak, where exports have ground to a halt. And a recent survey by National Nurses United of unionized hospitals across the United States, including Maine, concluded that hospitals “were not prepared for the magnitude” of cases this virus could produce.

“The nurses, they’re fearful,” Giles said. “They have patients to take care of and they want to take care of them, but they need to be safe.”

Giles noted, however, that nurses continue to report for work.

While there has been a reported shortage of testing kits, the director-general of the World Health Organization told NPR Friday that academic institutions are developing their own kits and private companies are quickly ramping up production.

Shah said that every state without a confirmed case of coronavirus received one kit from the CDC. He said the state will order additional kits when and if they are needed.

“We stand ready to turn up the dial if needed,” he said. 

Older residents are more susceptible to the illness, and Maine is one of the oldest states in the nation.

Maine AARP is closely monitoring the spread of coronavirus and the government’s response, said spokeswoman Jane Margesson, who applauded the $8.3 billion in emergency federal spending approved this week to deal with the virus.

Margesson said she was not in a position to comment on whether Maine was adequately prepared, but she noted that older Mainers who in live nursing homes or assisted-living facilities are especially vulnerable.

“We do have a lot of residents who are living in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities,” Margesson said. “That would be one area we would hope preparedness would be taking place.”

As of Friday, 100,000 people had tested positive for the coronavirus globally, according to the latest numbers from the World Health Organization.

China, where the virus originated, has been the hardest hit. It has confirmed 80,711 cases and 3,045 deaths, the WHO reported.

So far, Maine has not reported any confirmed cases of the virus, though cases have been reported in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Shah said that anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath, should call their doctor, rather than going to a walk-in clinic. Informing clinicians before arriving allows them to be prepared, he said.

To avoid contracting or spreading the virus, the CDC says that people should wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching their faces and practice social distancing.

Shah said that the Maine CDC has been reaching out to the state’s clinicians and tribal leaders to stress the importance of asking people suspected of having corona virus detailed questions about their travel histories, especially with the virus spreading rapidly in states like California and Washington on the West Coast.

“No one who thinks they have coronavirus disease should be just walking into a clinic or an ER or their doctor’s office,” Shah said. “You want to call the doctor’s office, you want to call the clinic first.”

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