Dr. Karen Saylor, a geriatric physician in Falmouth, has been patiently answering questions and allaying fears about coronavirus for days.

“I had one patient who had no symptoms but wanted to make sure she didn’t have it anyway. So, I had to explain that, given her risk factors, if she was infected, she’d be symptomatic,” Saylor said.

She didn’t test the patient.

“But she still emails me every day,” Saylor said.

This is how it’s been for health care professionals across the state. Patients aren’t panicking exactly, but the inevitable spread of coronavirus weighs heavy on their minds.

“Everyone is asking about this,” Saylor said. “There is a lot of fear and anxiety, especially among the older population because they are more vulnerable.”


The virus, which originated in China, continues to spread rapidly throughout the country, and although Maine was the only New England state without a confirmed case as of Wednesday, experts said it’s not a matter of if but when it will arrive here. Health care professionals are preparing for that inevitability while also trying to tamp down the dread.

Dr. Dan Loiselle, chief medical officer at Intermed, a physician-owned medical group with three southern Maine locations, said many patients are concerned.

“Because the coronavirus is relatively new, the data has been evolving,” he said. “While there has been some inaccurate information out there, the bigger impact may be the sheer volume of coverage that the coronavirus is receiving. While the majority of cases are mild-to-moderate, the constant coverage is raising concerns for many people.”

Dr. Gavin Ducker, a family medicine physician with Northern Light Health and Inland Hospital in Waterville, said he and others have had to swat away rumors that there have been confirmed cases at the hospital that have not been disclosed.

“That is not happening,” he said. “Leadership 101 tells you that if you enter into a secretive nondisclosure relationship with colleagues, that stokes up the rumor mill and erodes trust. So, if we get information, we share it.”

Ducker said he hasn’t fielded too many questions from patients yet, but his colleagues have. Ducker said that could change once Maine sees a confirmed case.


“It’s mostly things you’d expect, like: ‘Should I travel?’ “Or I have heart disease, what happens if I catch the virus,”‘ he said. “But we’re certainly not seeing the level of fear that we’ve seen elsewhere.”

That said, Ducker said experts have not had the chance to study the virus diligently.

“We’ve been totally consumed with dealing with the outbreak,” he said. “So, we can’t answer questions with scientific accuracy about all the risks. That’s challenging for patients.”

The testing guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says patients who have symptoms and have either traveled to an affected area or have had close contact with a confirmed patient should be tested. Patients who have severe symptoms for whom no other diagnosis has been found also can be tested.

Loiselle said Intermed doctors have been telling patients who have similar symptoms that unless they traveled to an affected area or had exposure to someone who had the virus, the risk is low.

“This conversation goes a long way to ease the patients’ concerns,” he said.


Kathy Knight, a nurse and director of emergency preparedness for Northern Light Health, understands the anxiety around coronavirus, but said most healthcare professionals have dealt with public health crises in the past.

“It doesn’t help that we don’t know everything about this disease … but it’s not like we haven’t been here before,” she said, referencing the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and the Ebola epidemic in 2014.

Saylor said part of the fear among patients is the unknown. The flu carries many of the same risks for seniors each year, she said, but most are desensitized to that.

There remains a lot of misinformation out there, she said.

“Most of it tends to be in the arena of being overly cautious rather than cavalier, which is good,” she said. “But it’s hard to know where patients are getting information and I think the older generation has a harder time sussing out what’s factual online.”

One of Saylor’s patients is part of a group of retired women who go out to lunch once a week.


“They were supposed to go out for Chinese food, but they all decided unanimously that they wouldn’t go,” she said. “I told them the sodium is a bigger risk.”

For others, the crisis feels less acute, according to Dr. Thomas Dancoes, an emergency medicine physician with BlueWater Emergency Partners, which serves several New England hospitals, including Mid Coast in Brunswick and Houlton Regional in Aroostook County.

“Wherever that red dot is not, I think people are feeling mostly safe,” he said, referring to maps that locate where coronavirus cases have been confirmed. “But we have to prepare just the same and that’s meant a lot of meetings with nursing staff and management.”

The bigger concern people have, Dancoes said, is: “What do we do if we get sick?”

“And what we’re telling them is that if they believe they have been exposed, they should contact their physician, but also, if they are well enough, they should stay home and quarantine,” he said. One of the biggest reasons patients are asked to stay home is to avoid infecting health care workers.

“We need to be able to care for our patients, and not just those who might have coronavirus,” Dancoes said.


Saylor said advising geriatric patients to avoid going out in public has been hard.

“Social isolation is a real issue for a lot of Mainers, but I have been telling them to avoid crowds and to bring hand sanitizer when they do go,” she said.

If she does get a case, Saylor said there is little she can do to treat patients.

“There’s no medicine or secret sauce,” she said. “I think that is worrisome for people.”

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