ELLSWORTH — So you’re 60-something, have a runny nose and your throat feels scratchy.
To be on the safe side, you wonder if it’s possible to get tested for the coronavirus. You are concerned for your own health as well as for your similarly-aged spouse and other family members at a time when Maine’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is still rising, when some of the public has stopped wearing masks or practicing social distancing and out-of-state visitors are coming to Vacationland.
The answer is likely yes. At Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital’s COVID-19 triage tent, in the back of the Union Street parking lot, Director of Physician Practices Karen Hardy and her team were poised this week to begin testing a potentially greater volume and broader spectrum of people for the virus.
On Tuesday, July 21, the Maine Coast and Blue Hill hospitals both were due to begin operating among 18 “swab-and-send” test collection sites across the state from South Portland to Fort Kent through a partnership between the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and seven health care organizations announced on July 14. Mount Desert Island Hospital was included among the 18 sites because it is receiving partial funding for its own voluntary program in which 200 tourism industry workers will be tested for COVID-19 once every two weeks until October. At its testing site, MDI Hospital does not test asymptomatic people (without symptoms).
Tests from the collection sites will be processed at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Augusta lab. At that lab, a new auxiliary mobile unit is expected to quadruple the state’s testing capacity there in coming weeks. The additional lab work’s costs are covered through a $52.7-million federal grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As part of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ initiative, the criteria for who can be tested has been expanded to target people who think they could have been exposed to the novel coronavirus at parties, weddings or other large gatherings but don’t necessarily show symptoms. Others who qualify include hospitality and health-care workers, people of color hit hard by the virus at disproportionately high rates and out-of-state visitors hailing from states where COVID-19 is more widespread.Those who do not have health insurance or a primary care doctor will not require a physician’s referral to get tested.
Maine DHHS’s partnership with the seven health care organizations includes Northern Light Health (and its 10 member hospitals), Penobscot Community Health Care, MaineGeneral Medical Center, MDI Hospital, Calais Regional Hospital, Northern Maine Medical Center and Promerica Health LLC. The initiative results from a joint-venture forged this past spring between the Mills administration and Westbrook-based IDEXX Laboratories Inc. to distribute enough COVID-19 test kits statewide to ensure anyone suspected of having the virus can be tested.
Dr. Michael Murnik, vice president and senior physician executive at Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, says Maine’s move to make far more tests easily available to high-risk groups is a major step forward to further reduce the state’s COVID-19 cases. More testing can prevent the pandemic from spiraling as the state allows the vast majority of businesses to open and welcomes visitors without restrictions from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and other states.
Murnik also is looking ahead to fall and Maine schools’ reopening in different formats and the return of flu season.
“Right now, Maine has been doing a pretty good job of testing, but really just doing barely enough,” the family physician said last week. “Our low numbers now are partly due to testing, partly luck, partly rurality, partly good initial response to shutdowns and social distancing recommendations. Maintaining low numbers and opening up the economy will require doing what the science tells us to.”
First responders, health-care workers, seasonal and migrant agricultural workers, residents and staff of long-term and assisted living, correctional and homeless facilities already qualified as at risk and are entitled to COVD-19 testing under Maine DHHS’s testing-related order issued June 18.
While Maine’s COVID-19 testing criteria has greatly expanded, Murnik says low-risk Mainers who don’t have symptoms cannot get tested merely because they want to through the statewide “swab-and-send” testing program or through their primary care physician. They must still follow the protocol of contacting their family doctor or COVID-19-dedicated phone lines at either Northern Light Maine Coast and Blue Hill hospitals (1-844-489-1822) or Mount Desert Island Hospital (801-5900). A physician or a nurse will quiz them about possible symptoms and their concerns and circumstances prompting the call. Symptoms include cough, sore throat, congestion, fatigue, headache, shortness of breath nausea or vomiting. Greater breathing difficulty, persistent chess pressure or pain, struggle or inability to stay awake, recent confusion and blueish face or lips are emergency warning signs. The physician or hospital staff may order a COVID-19 test or tell the individual that their symptoms don’t warrant a test at that time.
Even though far greater testing will be done, Murnik says health officials are looking ahead to the fall when other flus with similar symptoms crop up.
“Testing is a limited, precious resource, and the goal has been to have enough availability for everyone who needs it — not for everyone who really doesn’t need it,” Murnik stressed. “If you feel fine, have been pretty careful, haven’t traveled, and you live in Maine with a low current incidence rate, please don’t do a low-pre-test-probability test, just keep being careful.”
While Maine’s COVID-19 testing capacity has shot up, Murnik notes staffing levels have not risen at the state’s 18 “swab-and-send” sites and 40 other medical facilities conducting tests. Health-care workers range from medical providers to office and cleaning personnel. He says these frontline workers are a precious, vulnerable resource that must be considered too. He cautions that small health-care facilities easily could be overwhelmed by a sudden surge in the number of coronavirus cases.
“So far, we have been able to handle the demand,” the physician said, referring to the Maine Coast and Blue Hill hospitals. “If we get a rush, we want to be able to respond to everyone who comes through our doors.”
Up until now, Murnik says both the Maine Coast and Blue Hill hospitals have closely monitored and safeguarded their supply of swab test kits, solution and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N95 masks, medical gowns and other protective gear.
Increased testing is a powerful tool to prevent the virus’s spread, but the public still has the greatest role to play in curbing the pandemic.
“We need to follow public health protocols,” he said. “We need to wear masks, wash our hands, and watch our distances. We need to test (and contact trace) a lot. That’s how we will stay the state [in the nation] with the lowest numbers and slowest growth.”