Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, shown in March, said Thursday that seven state employees who work at the Maine Emergency Management Agency in Augusta are being tested for COVID-19. The results are expected within 24 hours. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Seven employees who work at the Maine Emergency Management Agency experienced symptoms similar to COVID-19 and called in sick Thursday, forcing the state to shift its daily media briefing to a virtual event.

Neither Gov. Janet Mills nor Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention – both of whom were present at the briefing Wednesday – has had close contact with the employees, the CDC said. Likewise, other top state officials who sometimes attend the briefings have not had close contact with the affected workers.

The seven employees are being tested and the results should be available within 24 hours, the agency said. Their symptoms included fever, chills and joint pain. Because COVID-19 symptoms are similar to other viruses, it could be that the employees fell ill with a different virus, Shah said.

The CDC reported updated case numbers during the virtual briefing Thursday, including three additional deaths and 52 new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

MEMA Director Peter Rogers has not been in close contact with the employees, the CDC said. Shah and Rogers are not being tested because they were not in close contact with the affected employees and do not have symptoms.

In addition to Shah and Mills, top government officials such as Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, Economic and Community Development Director Heather Johnson and Labor Department Commissioner Laura Fortman have attended the briefings.

Shah said the state government is able to continue its work on COVID-19, even though the MEMA site has shifted entirely to a virtual operation.

“There has been no interruption in the state’s overall response to COVID-19,” Shah said. He and Rogers briefed the media using the Zoom online program. The daily media briefings are televised and shown live at pressherald.com, Maine Public’s website and many other media outlets across the state.

Rogers said that while some aspects of operations have became more difficult during the pandemic, MEMA has been doing more tasks remotely and devised contingency plans for a potential outbreak at the agency.

“It’s much easier to have a room full of people, and you can turn to somebody and say, ‘Have you seen this or seen that?'” Rogers said. “But what we have been doing has been working out very well.”

Three of the employees who called in sick work for MEMA, two for the Maine CDC and two are members of the Maine National Guard. They all work out of the State Emergency Operations Center at MEMA in Augusta, where the briefings are held weekdays.

The center moved to entirely virtual operations, and Rogers said the number of people working directly at the site had already been cut from 70 to 14.

Shah, who spends part of his day at MEMA, said those who work in the building still prefer to conduct meetings electronically rather than in person.

“We now separate physically as much as possible,” he said. Rogers said other precautions are taken, such as wearing masks, staying more than 6 feet apart and disinfecting surfaces frequently.

Shah said if the seven employees did become infected with COVID-19, it highlights how contagious the virus can be, especially indoors.

The new statewide case numbers reported Thursday show that 45 more people have recovered from the disease. Cumulatively, there have been 2,189 COVID-19 cases in Maine since the pandemic began, and 84 deaths. Active cases ticked up from 699 on Wednesday to 703 on Thursday. All three deaths were Mainers in their 80s from Cumberland County, two women and one man.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 stood at 58, a decrease of one since Wednesday. Among hospitalized patients, 22 were in critical care and 14 were on ventilators Thursday to assist their respiration. A day earlier, there were 25 people in critical care and 14 on ventilators.

Hospitalization rates and death trends are key metrics for tracking the progress of the virus and efforts to contain transmission. Intensive care beds and ventilators are critical tools for treating hospitalized patients, and epidemiologists closely monitor the demand for these resources as they study the spread of the disease.

The Maine CDC is investigating several new reported outbreaks, including at Happy Haven home for adults with intellectual disabilities in Auburn, where three people are COVID-19 positive; and Milestone Recovery substance use treatment center in Portland, which has five cases. The agency has also begun investigating seven cases at Procter and Gamble in Auburn.

 

Madeline Macomber, of Portland, wears a mask while sitting with her dog Socca in the sun on the Eastern Prom enjoying the summerlike weather on Wednesday. The Maine CDC reported 52 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On Wednesday, Mills announced a postponement of indoor dining at restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties, where COVID-19 has been most prevalent in the state. Indoor dining was slated to return on Monday, with physical distancing restrictions, but Mills, pointing to recent spikes in cases and hospitalizations, decided to restrict restaurants in the three counties to outdoor dining. She did not set a new date for indoor dining to resume.

The rest of the state will be open for indoor dining Monday, and some rural areas already have opened. Some cities and towns, such as Portland, have closed off sections of streets to vehicle traffic to make it easier for restaurants to open outdoor seating.

Some restaurant owners slammed Mills, saying she pulled the rug out from under them at the last minute after they had made preparations to open Monday.

“We had food and beverage delivered to each location this morning for thousands of dollars,” said Joe Christopher, owner of Three Dollar Deweys in Portland and Saltwater Grille in South Portland. “That money is gone. It’s totally irresponsible.”

Mills defended the decision, noting the dangers of indoor transmission of the virus compared to the less likely transmission outdoors.

“We believe this change is safer for the health of Maine people,” Mills said at Wednesday’s news briefing. “It balances the economic needs of these businesses with the priority of the health of Maine people.”

In other developments, drive-thru testing for COVID-19 will be offered at four CVS pharmacies in Maine starting Friday.

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