Gov. Janet Mills enters a news conference Sunday night in Augusta during which she announced a civil state of emergency in Maine. She was accompanied by Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On the 200th anniversary of Maine’s statehood, Mills said extra precautions – including schools postponing classes – are warranted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills declared a civil state of emergency Sunday as health officials reported new coronavirus infections, including the first potential cases in a retirement community and at a public school.

As of Sunday evening, Maine had seven confirmed coronavirus cases as well as five presumptive positive cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus. While most of those cases are in Cumberland County, state health officials said they believe “community transmission” will spread to other areas of the state.

In response, Mills issued a new set of recommendations aimed at slowing public transmission of the virus, including advising schools to stop holding on-site classes and recommending against gatherings of more than 50 people. But the governor stopped short of the mandatory closures or restrictions that some other governors have imposed in recent days.

“I think there has been a great deal of compliance with our recommendations so far and I don’t see the need to order such actions when people are listening to recommendations and doing what they should be doing,” Mills said at a press conference in Augusta on Sunday night. “The civil emergency order I just signed this afternoon allows me to make those orders, if necessary, … but I am not prepared to do that right now.”

Maine reported its first “presumptive positive” test for COVID-19 on Thursday but, as in other states and countries, is now seeing numbers steadily increase.

Yet Maine also appears to be entering the new phase of “community transmission” – at least in Cumberland County – because at least one individual was infected in-state rather than during travels elsewhere.

“Our view is that community transmission will likely be found in other parts of the state as well, which is the pattern that we have seen in other states and jurisdictions,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new confirmed or likely cases include two residents of the OceanView at Falmouth retirement community as well as a Cumberland County resident who is under age 18. The minor is isolating at home while one of the two Falmouth residents, who was identified only as a man in his 80s, is hospitalized at Maine Medical Center in Portland, according to the Maine CDC.

Cape Elizabeth School Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said in a letter to the community Sunday night that a student at Cape Elizabeth Middle School recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“Staff and students may have been exposed to the virus and we are informing you out of an abundance of caution,” Wolfrom wrote.

In a later update to parents and faculty, a nurse at Cape Elizabeth Middle School reported that the child is “recovering, progressing, and doing well at home” and that the state was not recommending quarantining the school. Instead, parents and community members should monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, a cough and shortness of breath.

“Per the CDC, no quarantine order has been advised for this exposure due to the community spread in our county and state,” reads the update. “In other words, this is not a virus that we can contain by quarantining our middle school community.”

The other presumptive positive tests, which are still under review by the Maine CDC, include a Lincoln County woman in her 30s who works in the health care industry, a Cumberland County woman in her 70s and a Cumberland County man in his 40s. All of those individuals are isolating at home.

The case at OceanView at Falmouth – which offers independent living, assisted living and dementia care – is the first identified in a facility catering to elderly residents.

While COVID-19 does not appear to pose a major threat to healthier individuals, the disease can cause serious or life-threatening complications in the elderly as well as those with weakened immune systems or chronic health issues. The most severe outbreak to date in the U.S. has occurred at a Seattle-area nursing home, where several dozen have been sickened and 19 residents have died.

Mills recommended that nursing homes and other long-term care facilities immediately restrict all visitors except for essential personnel, a step that a growing number of facilities in Maine are already taking. The governor also recommended hospitals postpone all nonessential procedures and appointments “to relieve the strain on the health care system as we prioritize COVID-19 related cases.”

In a statement, OceanView at Falmouth said two related residents on the campus tested presumptive positive for coronavirus, one of whom is at Maine Med while the other is recuperating at home.

Following CDC recommendations and internal protocols, the facility has identified all staff and residents who had contact with the potentially infected individuals, the company stated.

“To limit any further spread we’ve requested that all residents self-quarantine for the next 14 days, increased the frequency of cleaning of all common areas, restricted visitors to the campus, and limited access to our main buildings to essential staff only,” the statement read.

“As a community comprised of a high-risk population, the safety and well-being of our residents and staff is our highest priority,” the statement continued. “Consequently, our expertise and experience makes our community an ideal place for our residents to remain in this situation.”

In a news release, the town of Falmouth said two fire-EMS crew members who cared for and transported the potentially infected OceanView resident several times to Maine Med have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. Other Falmouth crew members involved in the patient’s care have been cleared to return to duty provided they remain symptom-free, the town said.

Falmouth officials said Blueberry Lane, where OceanView is located, has been closed to all traffic except for residents, approved vendors, caregivers and staff.

Schools, businesses and organizations across Maine are closing, canceling or postponing events in response to the threat posed by the coronavirus. Many school systems – including Portland, South Portland and Lewiston – had already opted to close their facilities and transition to distance-based learning by Sunday.

A state of emergency declaration will allow Mills to more quickly mobilize or shift state resources and access federal funds. The law also allows the governor to “take whatever action is necessary to abate, clean up or mitigate whatever danger may exist within the affected area,” potentially including quarantines or mandatory closures.

Last week, Mills had recommended the postponement or cancellation of events expected to involve 250 or more people. On Sunday, she dropped that figure down to 50 – consistent with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – but did not impose the mandatory restrictions seen elsewhere.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, for instance, announced that all restaurants, bars or other food/drink establishments could only provide takeout or delivery service beginning on Tuesday. Massachusetts has more than 150 coronavirus cases.

“Using takeout is not a bad idea,” Mills said. “We are not ready to shut down the whole restaurant business in Maine or the bars.”

The state of emergency came on a day that should have been one of considerable celebration as Maine observed the 200th anniversary of the state’s formal separation from Massachusetts. But the bicentennial events long-planned for Augusta and elsewhere on Sunday were canceled because of the coronavirus.

Mills noted the 200th anniversary on Sunday and Maine’s history of self-reliance even as she urged state residents to prepare, be cautious but also help one another during the coronavirus pandemic. That could mean thinking of the needs of others while shopping for supplies or checking on elderly neighbors, Mills said.

“Things are likely to get worse before they get better, but they will get better and together we will get through this,” the governor said.

Worldwide, the disease has sickened more than 150,000 people and caused 5,746 deaths as of Sunday, according to the World Health Organization. The U.S. CDC is reporting 1,629 cases nationwide and 41 deaths.

Symptoms include fever, cough, respiratory distress and a sore throat in some cases. Public health officials are urging everyone to practice good hygiene – such as washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer as a backup – as well as keeping a 6-foot buffer between others, avoiding large gatherings and practicing “social distancing.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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