AUGUSTA — State health officials reported Monday that there were 17 confirmed or likely coronavirus cases in Maine, including in another coastal county, as state and local governments took more steps to shut down workplaces and public gatherings.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, announced five additional cases Monday. Three of those individuals – a man in his 70s, a woman in her 60s and a woman in her 80s – are residents of Cumberland County.

The other two presumptive positive cases involve a man in his 40s in Lincoln County and a man in his 30s from Knox County, which represents the virus’s spread up Maine’s coast. Shah said there have been 764 negative tests so far, with 13 confirmed or presumptive positive cases in Cumberland County plus two in Lincoln County and one each in Androscoggin and Knox.

Blueberry Lane in Falmouth, the location of OceanView at Falmouth, is closed on Monday. Two residents of the retirement community are among the people who have tested presumptively positive for COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus. One of them, a man in his 80s, is hospitalized at Maine Medical Center in Portland, according to the Maine CDC. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We are continuing to see evidence of community transmission in and around Cumberland County,” Shah said at a media briefing in Augusta. “And consistent with the trend we have seen in other parts of the Northeast and New England, we anticipate community transmission being detected across other counties in Maine in the near future.”

VIRUS SPREADING

On Sunday, the Maine CDC announced the first cases of COVID-19 in both a retirement community and a public school.

Parents and staff at Cape Elizabeth Middle School were waiting Monday to learn more about how the school and CDC were responding to news that a student tested presumptively positive for the virus. School officials said they believe the boy contracted the virus from someone in the community rather than from a known, infected person.

A man in his 80s living at OceanView at Falmouth, a residential facility that offers independent living, assisted living and dementia care, was being treated at Maine Medical Center in Portland while another person from his household was isolating at home.

On Monday, a spokesperson for OceanView at Falmouth said the facility continues to follow prevention measures announced Sunday after the two COVID-19 cases were identified. All residents have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, visitors to campus are being restricted and main buildings are being limited to essential staff only.

Falmouth police are limiting access to OceanView by closing Blueberry Lane to nonessential traffic.

New England Cancer Specialists closed a treatment center in Kennebunk after a person connected to the office tested positive for COVID-19, prompting advisories to more than 230 patients. And Northern Light Health said a staff member at one of Mercy Hospital’s off-campus location tested positive for COVID-19.

“We took swift measures to contact all patients and staff who were potentially exposed,” Ed Gilman, spokesman for the Portland hospital, said in a statement. “Additionally, we advised affected patients and staff to contact their primary care providers, and, following CDC recommendations, to self-quarantine for 14 days. As a result, our practice located in our Westgate location will be closed for at least two weeks.”

Also on Monday, MaineHealth and Northern Light Health announced they were suspending all elective procedures and nonessential visits at their hospitals. MaineHealth operates nine hospital systems in northern New England, including Maine Medical Center in Portland and Mid Coast-Parkview Health in Brunswick. Northern Light Health’s system includes Mercy Hospital in Portland and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor among its 10 hospitals.

Gov. Janet Mills declared a civil state of emergency Sunday night, giving her administration more flexibility to marshal resources or take statewide actions in response to the coronavirus. Mills recommended that schools cease holding classroom-based instruction as soon as possible and advised against public gatherings of 50 or more people but has yet to impose mandatory closures or restrictions on businesses seen elsewhere.

Shah reiterated the recommendations to practice good hygiene, avoid large gatherings and practice “social distancing” in public as the number of coronavirus cases increases.

TESTING AND SUPPLIES

In addition to the Maine CDC laboratory, the NorDx lab operated by MaineHealth is testing samples for coronavirus along with two other commercial labs, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp. Two other commercial labs in Maine also have contacted the CDC and plan to begin testing soon and sharing those results with the state.

One of those, Northern Light Health in Bangor, hopes to begin performing COVID-19 testing within three weeks.

“We have our equipment in (and) sampling is being verified,” said Suzanne Spruce of Northern Light Health. “But it is not a quick process. We must complete regulatory steps to be up and running.”

Northern Light Health is setting up drive-up testing at tents at its Mercy Hospital Fore River campus in Portland and at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Patients who meet the criteria for testing and have a doctor’s note to get tested can make appointments. Mercy Hospital started seeing patients at its offsite testing location on Monday.

Also, Maine Medical Center established an offsite testing location in Portland for patients who may have novel coronavirus but are not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, said Clay Holtzman, Maine Med spokesman. The site is not being publicly disclosed, but is unused office space that the hospital re-purposed for novel coronavirus testing, Holtzman said.

Those partnering efforts, combined with the Maine CDC recently receiving authorization to confirm COVID-19 cases without requiring additional federal review, has increased testing capacity and sped up results. Maine received one test kit from the federal government containing supplies for 1,000 individual tests but the private labs are using separate processes and supplies.

“Based on where we are right now and the demand we’ve seen in the past eight days, we are continuing to monitor and will be ordering additional test kits from the U.S. CDC to ensure that our supply of testing (equipment) remains robust,” Shah said.

Meanwhile, the Maine CDC was recently notified the state would soon receive a large shipment from the federal government of additional personal protective equipment, including respiratory masks, face shields, gloves and gowns. That is on top of the supplies that Maine CDC began distributing last week to health care facilities around the state, including 60 facilities on Monday.

PUBLIC HEALTH DEBATE

Nationwide, there are 3,487 cases of COVID-19 and at least 68 deaths have been attributed to the virus, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. CDC. The global number of infections from the disease topped 168,000 with 6,610 deaths, the World Health Organization reported on Monday.

The New York stock market suffered its biggest loss in more than three decades Monday, crashing 12 percent as financial markets worldwide reacted to how the pandemic is affecting the global economy.

State and local governments as well as businesses and community service providers across the country are struggling with how to deal with the pandemic.

Preble Street, the Portland shelter and soup kitchen, called on city and state officials Monday to open temporary shelters so it could disperse its clients and prevent overcrowding, among other recommendations.

“The people we serve are among the most vulnerable and immunocompromised in our community, and there needs to be an immediate and concerted COVID-19 response to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness right now,” Jen Tibbals, Preble Street’s communications coordinator, said in an email that noted the city’s Oxford Street Shelter took in 174 men and women on Sunday night and Preble Street housed 64 women and teens.

Portland city officials declared an emergency curfew on Monday, ordering bars and restaurants to close for the St. Patrick’s Day holiday and in the evenings for the rest of the week. Maine retail giant L.L. Bean announced it will close all stores starting Monday night until March 29. And the largest union at Bath Iron Works – one of Maine’s largest employers – sharply criticized the General Dynamics-owned shipyard’s response to the outbreak.

“Social distancing isn’t much of an option as we are now seeing this virus already starting to spread in the state of Maine,” the leadership of the Local S6 union, which represents the majority of BIW’s roughly 6,000 workers, said in a statement. “Once it hits BIW, the shipyard can potentially become the biggest contributor to the spread of this virus throughout Maine.”

Bangor also declared a civil state of emergency Monday night that required all bars, restaurants, and gathering places to close between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. for five days beginning Tuesday.

Maine’s two casinos also announced Monday that they would be closing because of the coronavirus outbreak. Oxford Casino in Oxford and Hollywood Casino in Bangor both said they would close for two weeks, though Oxford Casino noted the closure likely would extend beyond that period.

Maine state government’s response to the outbreak is also quickly evolving. Legislative leaders planned to end the 2020 legislative session roughly a month early on Tuesday after taking up emergency coronavirus-related measures.

Shah noted that scientific research into this strain of the coronavirus continues to evolve and that, in turn, affects how public health agencies respond. For instance, the Maine CDC is now recommending that individuals who test positive for COVID-19 backtrack all of their interactions and travels during the previous 16 days – up from 14 days – because health officials are still learning about how the virus spreads.

But Shah also acknowledged that during these “challenging times” involving major changes to daily lives, questions will be asked about why health authorities in Maine and nationwide are doing what they are doing.

“One of the things that I’ve learned and that my colleagues have learned in managing outbreaks, pandemics and emergencies is that the things you do before an outbreak or a pandemic hits always seem like overreactions, and the things that you do after a pandemic hits always seem inadequate and too late,” Shah said.

“We at the Maine CDC are following the best available science and we will continue to ensure that our response is driven by that scientific data, and we will also pledge to be transparent with everybody when we have changes,” he said.

Staff Writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.

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