Maine still has no confirmed cases of coronavirus, but its lab has been authorized by federal authorities to begin conducting in-state testing, rather than sending the samples to a federal laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Fewer than 100 individuals in Maine” have met the criteria for testing, “though that figure is fluid and constantly changing,” the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in a news release Monday afternoon.

Prior to Monday, officials would say only that about 12 to 18 people either had been tested or were currently being tested.

The Maine CDC said its new testing equipment, which was recently approved by the U.S. CDC, is capable of testing 100 to 200 patients a day and that results will be available within 48 hours.

Officials at the Maine CDC are providing little additional information to the public, including more detailed figures on the total number of people who have been tested, the number of negative test results, how many people are awaiting test results and any associated information about why they were tested, such as their travel histories or potential contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the virus.

Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long did not respond to a request to interview a state health official on Monday. Long asked a reporter to submit all questions in writing, but he did not directly respond to a list of roughly a dozen questions about the testing.

“The new U.S. CDC guidelines that took effect last week effectively shifted the decision on testing from public health agencies to clinicians,” Long said in an email. “Since the change, when requesting a test, clinicians have not been mandated to share information about travel history, hospitalization or other factors that had previously been required to be reported to state public health agencies.

“In short, since the change, clinicians have been able to say, ‘I want this person tested’ without having to provide travel history or other criteria that were previously mandated by U.S. CDC for COVID-19 testing,” Long wrote. “That information must be reported to public health agencies for confirmed cases. Maine has no confirmed cases.”

In Monday’s release, Long said the state has no “presumptive positive” test results, which is when a state lab gets a positive result that has not been confirmed by federal officials. He said the Maine CDC would announce any presumptive positive results.

In an email, Long said state officials plan to “post more specific numbers about testing on its website later this week.”

Maine’s limited information-sharing contrasts with the more transparent approach taken by the other New England states.

The Vermont Department of Health, for example, posts detailed testing information on its website. The site was updated at 1 p.m. Monday to show that one case of the virus had been confirmed, 34 people had tested negative, 223 people were being monitored and 39 had completed monitoring.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services also shares detailed testing information. It reported on its website at 4 p.m. Monday that 56 people had been tested, two cases were confirmed, two people were presumed to have the virus but the infection had not yet been confirmed, eight people awaited test results, 44 people had tested negative and 225 people were being monitored.

The lack of specific information from Maine appears to go against best practices, according to one expert.

Rajiv Rimal, a professor and chair of the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he was not familiar with the state’s response, but he could not think of a valid reason why health officials would withhold information on the number of people being tested and what circumstances led to their testing.

At times like this, when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air, it is in the best interest of public health officials to be as forthcoming as they can,” Rimal said. 

Maine received authorization over the weekend to begin testing for the virus in an updated state laboratory, according to the U.S. CDC. Maine was one of the last two states to receive that authorization. Prior to being authorized, Maine was sending its samples to the federal CDC lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

While Maine has not confirmed any cases, the coronavirus has been reported in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said Friday that the agency could not provide a specific number of people being tested because it changes rapidly. Shah said he would not release any other information about the people being tested, citing patient privacy, though he said some had traveled globally.

“Right now for persons under investigation we’re not releasing any further information about their whereabouts, their place of residence, or whether they’re hospitalized or not,” Shah said Friday. “If we have a confirmed case, that is the time at which we would release additional information.”

Shah did not explain why state officials are taking this posture and Long did not respond to a written question asking why shielding this information is in the public interest.

Rimal, the Johns Hopkins professor, said officials should err on the side of transparency to maintain public trust. He said a lack of information generally can allow misinformation, disinformation and conspiracies to take root.

“It’s very important for public health officials and the government to be forthcoming and to level with the public and let people know what is known and what is not known,” Rimal said. “That goes to one of the core principles of effective communication: You respect the audience. You don’t talk down to them. You don’t take on a paternalistic kind of attitude. You level with them and respect them enough to tell them the truth.”

As of early Monday morning, nearly 113,000 cases of coronavirus, including 3,900 deaths, had been reported globally, according to the World Health Organization.

Through Sunday afternoon,  more than 600 suspected cases in 35 states had been reported in the Unites States, including 26 deaths, according to the U.S. CDC.

To avoid contracting or spreading the virus, the CDC says that people should stay home if they’re sick, wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds, sneeze and cough into their elbows, avoid touching their faces and practice social distancing.

Maine health officials say that anyone who experiences symptoms such as a fever, cough and shortness of breath should call their doctor or clinician before going to a health care facility.

While the illness can have moderate symptoms for most people, it could be deadly for the elderly and those with underlying medical issues.

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