AUGUSTA, Maine — Public health officials said Thursday they have identified community transmission of the novel coronavirus within York County.
That means at least 25% of the 27 cases confirmed thus far in York County have occurred in patients who haven’t traveled recently or had any known contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, which the virus causes, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
York County is the second area in Maine where public officials have identified community transmission. The first was Cumberland County.
A county must have at least 10 confirmed cases before Maine epidemiologists will formally say community transmission has occurred, Shah said. None of the state’s 14 other counties had at least 10 confirmed cases, as of 11 a.m. Thursday, according to data updated daily on the Maine CDC website.
"We anticipate that there will be additional counties in the near future that also have the virus (spreading) at the community level," Shah said.
The news came as Maine officials announced the total number of confirmed cases rose to 155 statewide, an increase of 13 from Wednesday.
Of the 155 confirmed cases, 16 have fully recovered, 22 are currently hospitalized, and 16 are health care workers, Shah said. Patients are almost evenly split by gender, and their ages range from younger than 10 years old to older than 90 years old. Nearly 3,400 people have tested negative for the virus, he added.
On Wednesday, Shah and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne M. Lambrew announced an employee who worked in a DHHS office in Lewiston was among those confirmed to have COVID-19. That prompted officials to close the office while Maine CDC investigated.
"We identified a small number of close contacts that that individual had, and we've asked those individuals to self-quarantine,“ Shah said Thursday, noting the office is being cleaned in accordance with federal guidelines.
In most cases, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Severe illness, including pneumonia, is more likely in the elderly and those with existing health problems.
Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order Wednesday that aims to give more flexibility to licensed physicians, physician assistants and nurses to help during the civil emergency. The order allows health care professionals who are licensed out-of-state to receive an emergency license in Maine, with no application fee, among other things. It also allows licensed medical professionals to provide care via telehealth platforms.
Of the 307 ventilators currently in Maine, there were about 250 available, as of noon Thursday, Shah said. Of the 151 intensive care unit beds in the state, there were 87 available, he said.
Additionally, the state has counted at least 88 respiratory therapists statewide, Shah said, describing them as “part of the human resources backbone” the state will need moving forward.
Shah recommended the public consider donating blood and urged health care professionals who may be qualified to operate a ventilator to register at MaineResponds.org.
Shah said the state has begun to ask health care institutions across Maine to begin reporting not only their ICU bed and ventilator availability data but also numbers about the personal protective equipment (PPE) they have on hand, including N95 respirator masks, surgical masks, face shields and more. That will help state officials have a better sense for the highest areas of need, as they continue to work with suppliers and federal officials to allocate resources, he said.
Maine, like other states, has been dealing with a shortage of the reagent needed to process COVID-19 tests. But the state received another shipment Wednesday morning of that chemical, which will allow the state lab to continue testing “for a number of days,” Shah said. Additionally, state officials are working with an outside commercial laboratory to conduct testing and pursuing the purchase of an additional piece of equipment, which using a different chemical to process tests, he said. Orders for that equipment are backlogged, too, he said Thursday.
"As a state, as a community, as an agency, the things that we thought we were utterly inconceivable a month ago now seem blindingly obvious," Shah said.
Had he been asked a month ago whether Maine would be in a position now to close non-essential businesses, suspend elective medical procedures and recommend physical distancing, Shah said he would have thought those things might be possible but not on the horizon. Now those things are commonplace, he said.
"The question on my mind is what will we be saying a month from now?" he added.
Shah thanked Maine people for their grit, imagination and community spirit in difficult times.
"There are challenging times that are going to be ahead of us. ... But we will get through this, and we will do so partly because our approach is informed not just by science but by kindness, humanity and compassion,“ he said. ”We can and must remain together, even though for now we may be apart."
Anyone who may be in crisis and needs help is encouraged to call the Maine Statewide Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.
Anyone with general questions about COVID-19 can call 211 (or 866-811-5695), text their ZIP code to 898-211, or email email@example.com. Calls, texts, and emails are answered every day around the clock by someone within the state, according to the Maine CDC.
Anyone looking for specific medical advice regarding symptoms they may be experiencing is strongly urged to call their medical provider, an urgent care center, or 911, depending on the severity of their symptoms. COVID-19 symptoms include fever, shortness of breath and lower respiratory distress.