Gov. Janet Mills requested a disaster declaration from the federal government Wednesday afternoon as part of Maine’s response to a worsening coronavirus pandemic that has killed seven residents and sickened hundreds across the state.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier Wednesday that two additional women in their 80s from Cumberland County had died of the coronavirus, increasing the state’s death toll to seven. At the same time, the Maine CDC reported 344 confirmed cases of COVID-19 – up 41 cases from Tuesday – although officials caution both infections and deaths will likely grow significantly in the coming weeks.

Mills’ office, in addition to preparing to implement a mandatory stay-at-home order that takes effect Thursday, also announced that the governor had formally requested a federal disaster declaration. In a letter Tuesday to President Trump, Mills wrote that “the number of confirmed cases continues to rise exponentially daily, both because of increased testing and also as the spread of contagion increases.”

Specifically, Mills asked for increased access to federal support for unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, child care, funeral assistance and disaster legal services, among other programs. Nearly 30 other states and territories have been granted federal disaster assistance to date, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I am requesting these programs for all sixteen Maine counties,” Mills wrote to Trump. “This pandemic has placed an enormous burden on communities across the state and its impacts continue to adversely affect individuals and families in the state of Maine.”

Additionally, Mills requested federal funding should she activate the Maine National Guard to assist with such things as transportation, security, logistical planning and building field hospitals.

“The Maine National Guard is prepared to respond to requests at the Governor’s direction and in coordination with Maine Emergency Management Agency,” Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said in a written statement. “Thus far, the Guard has provided assistance with resource requests, including providing tents and an HVAC system to the VA at Togus for their external triage unit, as well as respirators to Eastern Maine medical Center and the Portland Fire Department.”

Earlier Wednesday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah provided an update on the grim new death and infection numbers, but also some of the positive developments on testing. Another development that appeared to be positive, the reopening of a Department of Health and Human Services service center in Lewiston, took a turn for the worse later in the day when DHHS closed the office for a second time after a second worker tested positive. The office had just reopened Monday following a closure prompted by the first positive test last week.

“Forty-one cases just overnight – that is concerning to us,” Shah said in regard to the nearly 14 percent jump in confirmed cases statewide. “It is, however, largely consistent with what we are seeing in other states when they were at the same point in their experience as we are in Maine right now … so even though the number is concerning, it is evidence of continued transmission across the state, across northern New England.”

The latest figures come as Mainers across the state prepare to begin living under a mandatory stay-at-home order starting at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Similar to orders imposed in the majority of other states, the mandate will prohibit Mainers from traveling outside of their homes for all but essential personal activities, such as grocery shopping, seeking medical care or medication, or traveling for an essential job.

With Hancock County reporting its first confirmed case, COVID-19 has now been documented in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties. Only Aroostook, Washington and Piscataquis counties have yet to report cases, although Shah and Mills have warned that the virus is likely present throughout Maine.

Statewide, 63 people have been hospitalized at some point during their sickness but the number of recovered patients rose to 80 on Thursday, representing nearly one-quarter of all cases.

Cumberland and York counties, which account for 257 of the 344 cases, are still the only places where Maine CDC has documented community transmission, but epidemiologists are investigating whether the disease is casually passing from person to person in Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin counties.

Shah also reported that a second individual has tested positive at Portland’s Oxford Street homeless shelter. In response, city officials opened the Portland Expo as an quarantine area for homeless individuals and held an emergency meeting later Wednesday to address shelter guests refusing to be quarantined and a surge of crime in the Bayside neighborhood where the city’s shelters are located.

RAPID-RESULT TESTS COMING

One positive development Shah noted was that Maine expects to receive 15 testing devices from Abbott Laboratories along with enough kits to run an estimated 2,400 tests. In a development described as a “game changer” nationwide, Abbott planned to begin production Wednesday at its Scarborough facility on the testing system that can yield positive results within five minutes and negative results within 13 minutes.

Abbott officials hoped to produce roughly 50,000 tests per day at its Maine facility for nationwide distribution. Unlike some other testing platforms, Abbott’s ID NOW machine – which is already used for flu and strep throat diagnostics – can quickly produce results on-site at a doctor’s office or other health care facility.

Like all states across the country, Maine has been struggling to keep up with demand for COVID-19 testing and has, to date, only encouraged doctors to order tests for individuals exhibiting symptoms. The state has been able to reduce a backlog of lower-priority tests from 1,300 to about 400 since last week

But Shah said the addition of Abbott’s rapid-result platform will expand testing capacity, quickly provide doctors and patients with much-needed guidance on next steps and help reduce usage of personal protective equipment that is in short supply.

Shah pointed out that a substantial amount of this equipment is used by health care providers before they know if a person is positive for COVID-19. Since the vast majority of tests come back negative – with 8,400 negative results as of Wednesday, compared to 344 positives – that wait ends up consuming equipment that could be needed later during the anticipated virus surge.

“If we can shorten the amount of time between when a patient person comes in with signs and symptoms and when they get a negative test, we can reduce that PPE usage,” Shah said. “To put that differently, a rapid diagnostic test in and of itself is a PPE conservation strategy.”

TRAVEL DOWN

Shah said the CDC has been using cellphone tracking data provided by cellphone companies and traffic data from the Maine Department of Transportation to evaluate social distancing. He reported “very positive signs” that the public is heeding directives to practice social distancing, particularly in Cumberland County.

But he said the state can’t yet quantify the direct impact of the distancing on infection rates because the disease is still spreading through various means.

Summarizing shipments of equipment to Maine from the federal Strategic National Stockpile, Shah said the state will receive no additional allocations. He said the state has been pursuing alternative sources, including on the private market and working with Maine manufacturers.

There were a total of 272 intensive care beds across the state on Wednesday, 124 of which were available, and a total of 348 ventilators, of which 271 of which were available, Shah said. Maine also has 128 alternative ventilators the federal government has approved for use with coronavirus.

The total numbers of beds and ventilators in Maine have increased, Shah said, as the CDC has gathered updated information from hospitals. “That’s one reason the numbers have gone up, and I’m very grateful to the hospitals for reporting those in,” he said.

 

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