Masks and hand sanitizer were in short supply at the Walgreens in Ellsworth on a recent afternoon. Health officials are urging residents not to stockpile masks, and many health care officials say a shortage of personal protective equipment for staff is one of the main challenges they may face in the coming months. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY KATE COUGH

Hospitals prep for possible outbreak



ELLSWORTH — Coronavirus (officially named COVID-19) hasn’t arrived in Maine yet, but staff and administrators at local hospitals, nursing homes and stores are preparing in earnest for when it does.

“The infection preventionists have been working on this for several weeks,” said Kathy Knight, a registered nurse and director of the Center for Emergency Preparedness at Northern Light Health.

Northern Light Maine Coast and Northern Light Blue Hill hospitals have a single team coordinating their response to the virus, said spokeswoman Kelley Columber. Hospital and other health care officials say much of the prevention protocol — hand washing, sanitizing surfaces and equipment, wearing personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and gowns — is standard practice and in line with protocols for other epidemics and pandemics. But health care workers are facing a new challenge with COVID-19.

“This is very different from other kinds of pandemics and epidemics in one respect,” said Knight. “That’s the challenges of the manufacturing or supply chain. With the impact on China’s manufacturing, it impacts the world at large.”

“Health care across the country and across the globe is experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment, specifically N95 masks,” which have a filter in the center to guard against airborne particles, said Knight.

The U.S. surgeon general recently implored residents not to stock up on the masks, which don’t protect the general public against the virus, are designed as single-use and are needed for caregivers.

Masks, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), should be saved for those who are sick or who are taking care of someone with a respiratory illness.

Regular surgical masks, which don’t form a tight seal, are not designed to protect against airborne particles.

Knight said Northern Light hospitals “have sufficient personal protective equipment and N95s to protect our staff at this point in time,” but said she wasn’t sure how long the stockpile would last in the event of a supply chain disruption. The hospitals are also doing an evaluation of their available respirators as well, said Knight.

Mount Desert Island Hospital spokeswoman Oka Hutchins said in a statement that the hospital “has been monitoring this situation since January, and has a plan in place to handle patients that presents with suspicion of COVID-19, and a pandemic plan in place should the need arise.

“The hospital’s pandemic plan includes a variety of scenarios — including measures that may need to be taken during the summer tourist season — and will be adjusted in the coming months as the situation develops.”

Officials at nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the area also said that keeping enough personal protective equipment in stock could be a struggle.

“That will probably be our biggest challenge going forward,” said Mary Jane Richards, chief operating officer of North Country Associates, the largest long-term care provider in the state, with facilities including Courtland Rehabilitation Center in Ellsworth.

Medical supply companies are limiting the group to “historical usage,” said Richards. “We can’t go any higher than what we’ve been typically been buying.”

But they can share between locations if one is running short, said Richards.

“Let’s say we have an eventual outbreak in one facility we can tap into our others.”

Ellsworth dentist Peter Cummings said, “We’re not concerned about the virus because we use universal infection control with all patients at all times.”

The office had not yet had any problems getting equipment, but the supply company is restricting the number of masks the office can buy at any one time.

Northern Light does not yet have the capacity to test for the virus, said Knight.

“We’re working on that,” she said, and “hoping” to have testing capacity in the near future. The hospital group is also working on a plan to isolate those who arrive at the hospital and are concerned they have the virus.

The Maine CDC announced this week that tests would no longer have to be sent to the federal CDC lab in Atlanta. As of Tuesday afternoon, all 20 of the coronavirus tests that have come back so far in Maine have been negative for the disease, according to the Portland Press Herald, with 10 still pending.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, in contrast with practice in other New England states, said the state would not release any additional information about the people being tested, including age, town of residence, whether they are hospitalized, or any information about their travel histories or whether they had contact with someone with a confirmed case of the virus.

While understanding of the disease (which the CDC has dubbed a “novel” coronavirus because it has not been seen before in humans) is still evolving, the risk of dying seems to vary across groups. The latest case fatality rate, which estimates the likelihood that someone who develops symptoms will eventually die from the infection, is roughly 3.4 percent globally. But many experts say it is likely much lower.

As mathematician Adam Kucharski recently explained to a New York Times reporter, “Overall, we’re seeing maybe 1 percent of symptomatic cases are fatal across all ages,” he said. “What’s also important is that 1 percent isn’t evenly distributed. In younger groups, we’re talking perhaps 0.1 percent, which means that when you get into the older groups, you’re potentially talking about 5 percent, 10 percent of cases being fatal.”

What can the public do? If you are worried that you might have coronavirus, said Knight, call your health care provider before coming so staff can take proper precautions. Stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands often (for 20 seconds with soap and water) and disinfect frequently touched surfaces (keyboards, doorknobs).

Some businesses are taking that advice as well. In a recent Facebook post, the owners of Riverside Cafe in Ellsworth detailed the steps they’re taking, including offering hand sanitizer at each table, sanitizing highchairs, chair frames, coffee pot handles, doorknobs, condiments and menus.

Some health care facilities, such as First Atlantic Healthcare, which runs Seaport Village in Ellsworth, are recommending friends and family comply with CDC guidelines and restrain from visiting if they have flu-like symptoms or “have traveled to a high-risk location or come into contact with someone who has.”

Something else to be wary of during an outbreak and the financial instability it may cause? Con artists. As markets fluctuate, said Maine Securities Administrator Judith Shaw in a release on Tuesday, Mainers should beware of making rushed financial decisions.

“We know con artists are opportunistic and use current events to cloak their schemes with an air of immediacy and legitimacy. Never make an investment decision without understanding what you are investing in, who you are doing business with, where your money is going, how it will be used, and how you can get it back,” said Shaw.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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