News Feature

The Island & The Peninsula
Originally published in Castine Patriot, March 5, 2020 and Island Ad-Vantages, March 5, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, March 5, 2020
Coronavirus causing local shortages
Preparations under way, though risk is “low”

COVID-19 Local Updates Archive
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by Leslie Landrigan

As the COVID-19 coronavirus comes closer to Maine, local businesses, doctors, town officials and school administrators are preparing for an epidemic—just in case.

And a sign that local people are worried about the disease is the disappearance of hand sanitizers and face masks from store shelves.

Josh Theriault, general manager at the TradeWinds Market Place in Blue Hill, said the store is completely out of those items.

“Currently all hand sanitizers and face masks are unavailable,” he said in a phone interview on Monday, March 2.

That day, state health officials in New Hampshire and Rhode Island each reported a case of COVID-19 and Massachusetts health officials reported two. Since then, health officials confirmed another case in New Hampshire.

Mainers should be concerned, said Dr. James Jarvis, senior physician executive, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. Northern Light Health includes the former Island Medical Center, Blue Hill Hospital and the Northern Light Health Center in Castine.

“A couple of days ago this was considered a West Coast issue,” Jarvis said in a phone interview. “Before then it was Asian.”

Containment is key

Health and government officials are focused on preventing the disease from spreading. No vaccine protects against it and no medication is approved to treat it, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

What makes COVID-19 especially tricky is the long incubation period—up to 14 days after exposure—without the victim showing symptoms, according to the CDC.

The CDC on its website reports the virus will likely cause a pandemic, which would overwhelm hospitals and healthcare providers.

“We just don’t have the resources or the beds to handle a large influx of patients,” Northern Light’s Jarvis said.

Schools may have to close and events that draw crowds may be canceled, said local physician Charles Zelnick.

“I told my daughter, who’s a violinist, she may be out of work for a while,” said Zelnick.

Local businesses may want to consider letting employees work from home and communicate using Skype, he said.

The Town of Stonington has already begun to prepare for the possible spread of COVID-19. Town Manager Kathleen Billings is planning for staff shortages in case of illness, she wrote in an email.

Billings held a refresher course on cross-training across departments and made contingency plans for road plowing. She’s also in touch with local emergency and public health agencies.

“We all know the drill and know what we need to do,” Billings wrote. “We just do it quietly and know our roles in dealing with these events and help each other out best we can.”

School closings?

Health authorities aren’t recommending canceling classes, but they might, wrote School Union 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington in a March 2 memo to parents, guardians and staff. Schools may have to close for as long as two weeks, Elkington said, and SU 76 schools may close for up to three half-days so staff can plan for such an eventuality. On March 3, the Community School District board voted to allow the half-day closures.

Elkington wrote in his memo that school maintenance staff will do extra cleaning, Brown’s Busing will be encouraged to clean buses before and after bus runs, teachers will review hand-washing techniques with students. And parents are urged to keep their children at home if they seem sick.

George Stevens Academy will send work home and teach electronically, said Tim Seeley, head of school, in a phone interview.

The school’s international students have not gone to any country with travel restrictions, Seeley said. But in the case of a severe COVID-19 outbreak, he said, GSA might not let a student go home because home has travel restrictions.

School Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt said he has a series of meetings planned to deal with COVID-19.

“There’s no doubt it’s coming to Maine, it’s just a question of when,” Hurvitt said in a phone interview. “Personally, we were going away during the April break, but I don’t know if I want to get on a plane.”

Shortages

Potential shortages of drugs, medical supplies and medical devices concern doctors and hospital administrators, as well.

“We aren’t seeing drug shortages yet, but I expect we will,” said Zelnick.

Thomas Moniz, pharmacy operations manager at EMMC, said Northern Light has been keeping a close eye on drug supplies, much of which comes from Asia.

“There are 20 pharmaceuticals where the raw materials only come out of China,” he said in a phone interview. “Across our whole system from Presque Isle to Portland, we’re keeping a close eye on it.”

Mike Whelan, vice president, Facilities and Supply Chain at Northern Light Health, said supply chain shortages happen fairly frequently in health care. He said Northern Light is able to shift supplies among its facilities in the event of shortages.

“Up until this point we’ve been able to secure the supplies we need,” Whelan said.

At the Island Employee Coop on Deer Isle, Chief Financial Officer Les Weed expects shortages in hand sanitizer and masks. Weed expects the supplier—Ace Hardware—to replenish supplies in mid-April.