Maine needs more capacity to test and track COVID-19 now that the governor is about to begin loosening the stay-at-home order that has worked to slow spread of the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to several health experts contacted Tuesday night.

But they also said the gradual phase-in plan presented by Gov. Janet Mills holds promise because it allows time to continue ramping up those defensive efforts and to adjust the rules if the virus spreads.

“We continue to support recommendations for increased screening and testing, robust contact tracing, and the availability and enforcement of safe ways to isolate and quarantine,” said Rebecca Boulos, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association. “We look forward to learning more about how these efforts will be bolstered, particularly in light of Gov. Mills’ plan for reopening Maine’s economy.

“As we all know, our state’s public health workforce capacity is more limited than we would like – MPHA staff, board and members remain available to support the state in its COVID-19 response.”

Boulos also said she believes the administration will follow the science and best public health practices.

“I trust the administration to continue to prioritize public health, using the best available data to inform decision making, and identifying strategies for improving screening, testing, contact tracing and other needed capacity to protect Mainers’ health while reopening the state’s economy.”

Erika Ziller, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine and head of the public health department, said the phased-in reopening plan allows time to monitor the effects and make adjustments based on data about the virus and state’s ability to track and test.

“I think the governor’s timeline seems designed to balance the aims of keeping Mainers safe from COVID-19 while gradually reopening the economy, both of which are critically important,” Ziller said. “Obviously there is still a lot that we don’t know about the virus, but this phased-in approach should help us monitor the impact and allow opportunity for correction as needed.

“My guess is that this plan could evolve depending on on-the-ground conditions and Maine’s availability to do the testing and tracking that we need to manage any new outbreaks. So, everyone should have that in the back of their minds and plan accordingly.”

Dr. Lani Graham, a recognized environmental health activist and former director of the Maine Bureau of Health, said she supports Mills’ plan for a phased reopening of the state’s economy provided there is adequate contact tracing and robust testing for the virus.

Graham said that Mills is facing “an incredible challenge” because she will have to balance the state’s tourist-based economy with protecting the health of its citizens in the months ahead.

“It’s going to be a knife’s edge to walk,” Graham said Tuesday evening. “But I am very impressed after reviewing her plan. The metrics she is using are good metrics. I think it strikes the right balance, but one that will require some very careful monitoring and observation.”

If there were to be a spike in COVID-19 cases at any point during the state’s phased reopening plan, the state will have to reverse course and return to more stringent measures, something the governor has accounted for, Graham said.

“We appear to have flattened our curve, which is great, but questions still remain about contact tracing and testing,” Graham said. “It will be a wonderful thing if we can follow the path the governor has set out for us.”

Staff writers Matt Byrne, Megan Gray and Dennis Hoey contributed to this story.

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