AUGUSTA — All 20 of the coronavirus tests that have come back so far in Maine have been negative for the disease, according to the latest figures from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Test results still pending at the state’s Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory are for fewer than 10 people in Maine, but as of Tuesday afternoon Maine was the only New England state without any confirmed coronavirus cases. However, public health experts have said it is likely only a matter of time before cases are confirmed in Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills said the state is as prepared as it can be for the spreading virus, but urged Mainers to take “common-sense precautions” such as washing hands and keeping a safe distance from others.

“We’ve got our test kits here,” Mills told reporters Tuesday afternoon following a noon event at the Blaine House. “We are doing the testing as things arise and I think we are as prepared as any state to deal with this issue. We are cautiously optimistic about the state of the Maine population and protecting our people from this virus.”

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah held a briefing with the media Tuesday afternoon at the Department of Health and Human Services in Augusta and plans to hold sessions daily hereafter. He said the lack of a confirmed case in Maine presented a “window of opportunity” for the state to prepare.

However, Shah also expressed concern about a potential shortage of protective equipment for health care workers.

So far, 647 people in the United States have tested positive for the disease and 25 people have died, with 35 states plus the District of Columbia reporting cases, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a fast-moving, rapidly changing dynamic outbreak,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of Maine’s CDC. “What we knew two weeks ago is not what we know now. And what we know two weeks from now may be different as well.” Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Worldwide, 113,702 people have tested positive and 4,012 people have died, according to the World Health Organization.

Shah commended state clinicians’ and health care providers’ attention to the coronavirus, which he said has five to 10 times the mortality rate of the regular flu, because there is a lack of community immunity and it seems to spread more easily than the flu. He said the fatality rate for the flu is between 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent, while the fatality rate for coronavirus is 1 percent.

Shah said the state’s coronavirus hotline has received 829 calls from clinicians seeking guidance about whether their patients should be tested. The frequency of those calls is increasing, he said, with 80 coming over the weekend and 119 on Monday alone.

“To me, that suggests providers are clued in, they’re thinking about coronavirus, they’re calling in to ask our epidemiologists and doctors for advice,” Shah said. “It gives me comfort that our doctors are educated and they’re ready to test.”

Shah said he’s been in contact with a commercial lab in Maine preparing to test for coronavirus. He would not name the facility, but said that he stressed to the lab on Monday that it needs to promptly report results to the state CDC.

Shah stressed that Maine has the ability to conduct up to 200 tests a day. He said that’s about 5 percent of the national capacity of all state labs combined, which had a combined testing capacity of 3,900 tests a day as of Monday.

Major health insurance companies have agreed to waive out-of-pocket costs for novel coronavirus testing, including carriers in Maine, such as Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Aetna, United Healthcare and Community Health Options.

“If your provider recommends screening for COVID-19, we will waive cost-sharing for the screening test, associated lab processing fees and the office visits to collect the specimen,” according to a posting on the website for Lewiston-based Community Health Options, which offers insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Shah said the state would issue a news release as soon as it detects a positive result. And he urged people to check the state and federal CDC websites for the latest information, since the outbreak continues to evolve.

“This is a fast-moving, rapidly changing, dynamic outbreak,” he said. “What we knew two weeks ago is not what we know now. And what we know two weeks from now may be different as well.”

Shah said the state CDC on Monday issued an alert to long-term care facilities, nursing homes and other health facilities. He said the coronavirus is particularly dangerous to the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions.

About 20 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million people are over 65. And Shah urged older Mainers to reassess their daily activities to minimize their risk, while also urging institutions to ramp up planning and education.

“Our goal right now is to maximize our opportunity for preparedness given that we do not have current cases in Maine right now,” Shah said, adding that facilities were encouraged to educate staff and devise a plan for how they would care for someone with the disease. “Not only are the elderly in general at higher risk, we’re especially concerned about long-term care providers.”

Tuesday evening, a spokeswoman for Mills said the governor has asked the Maine Bureau of Insurance to survey companies that offer in-state insurance plans about how they intend to handle claims and costs related to the coronavirus, including testing and hospital quarantine.

“The governor will assess their responses and determine if further action is needed on the part of her administration,” Lindsay Crete, Mills’ press secretary, said in an email. “She believes that the health, safety, and welfare of Maine people is the top priority and that costs should not be a barrier to preventing and mitigating the spread of the virus.

Shah said the state also is beginning to plan for the upcoming cruise ship season.

One cruise ship, the Grand Princess, was forced to anchor off the coast of California for several days after at least 21 of the 3,500 passengers aboard were confirmed to have the disease. The U.S. Coast Guard flew testing kits to the vessel, which was finally allowed to dock in Oakland, California, on Tuesday.

Shah said he’s been in contact with other states that have cruise ship ports and state officials met with the Coast Guard to learn more about their approach. Plans for a larger-scale meeting are in the works, he said.

“As you can imagine, this is a challenging situation,” he said. “We’re studying very closely what happened with the Diamond Princess (which had been quarantined off Japan), what’s currently undergoing with the Grand Princess and what’s currently brewing off the coast of Florida right now to make sure we learn from each and every one of those situations.”

Shah said that state officials also are concerned about the supply of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and gowns. He said the state has an internal team that has taken inventory of supplies available to the CDC and local institutions. And that team will help coordinate the transfer of supplies among institutions.

“We are very, very concerned about this situation,” Shah said. “If and when it becomes necessary, the Maine CDC is also prepared to work with providers to top off their supplies of PPE and will do through a scientific process. It won’t be an ad hoc distribution.”

The regular briefings came after it was reported that the Maine CDC has lagged the rest of the nation in both setting up its in-state laboratory to test for the coronavirus, and in the amount of information it’s providing to the public. Before Monday, the tests were sent to the federal CDC lab in Atlanta.

On Monday, the state CDC announced that “fewer than 100 people” have met the criteria to be tested for the disease in Maine. Previously, officials said that about 12 to 18 people either had been tested or were currently being tested. Shah said the state would not release any additional information about the people being tested, including age, town of residence, whether they are hospitalized, or any information about their travel histories or whether they had contact with someone confirmed to be infected with the virus.

On Tuesday, the CDC said that 20 people had tested negative and Shah said that as of 2 p.m. Tuesday five other people were being tested. Also on Tuesday, the state began posting testing numbers on the CDC website.

Shah said it’s too soon to conduct an analysis of the people being tested, where they are from, where they may have traveled and how many people they have had contact with. That type of analysis will be conducted after hundreds had been tested, he said.

Cases have been reported in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Each of those states has posted information about the number of people who have been tested, monitored and confirmed to have cases. Massachusetts provides information about the number of confirmed and presumptive cases in each county.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Maine CDC said the state would “post more specific numbers about testing on its website later this week.”

Asked about the issue, Mills said the state is now regularly updating information on the Maine CDC website.

“We have nothing to hide. We are providing as much information as possible,” Mills said. “Nirav Shah has been all over the media, Commissioner (Jeanne) Lambrew as well, and all of us have been talking in public about what we know without trying to upset the public of Maine or cause any kind of panic because I don’t think that’s appropriate. But I think we are being as prepared as any state and as transparent as any state.”

Mills also said she is encouraging employers to grant leave to employees who may not be exhibiting symptoms but were potentially exposed to people with the virus.

“We would encourage all public and private employers to be generous with paid leave,” Mills said.

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.

Shah urged Mainers to stay healthy by eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep.

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.

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