When Boothbay Region Ambulance Service Director Scott Lash heard that a new virus outbreak occurred in a Chinese fishing province on Dec. 31, 2019, he sprang into action. Lash knew from past virus outbreaks it wouldn’t be long before the deadly disease arrived in the Boothbay peninsula. Lash began inquiring about stocking the local ambulance service with masks, gowns and other equipment designed to keep his staff and patients from spreading airborne diseases. Lash remembered the H1N1 virus, another deadly airborne disease, also known as the swine flu, took its toll on medical resources in April 2009.
“After the initial report, I knew it was only a matter of time. Whether it’s a virus, earthquake or some other crisis, the supply chain bogs down. So I began ordering more resources, like masks and gowns, so we’d have enough at least to handle an initial outbreak in the peninsula. I can’t say we are sufficiently stocked, but we’ve been working hard to meet the challenge.”
And it seems experience served as a great teacher. The coronavirus has spread worldwide. The World Health Organization reports 334,981 cases claiming 14,652 deaths in 192 countries. On March 12, Maine had its first confirmed coronavirus when an Androscoggin County man contracted the disease. Almost two weeks later, Maine has over 100 confirmed cases, but no deaths, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. Social distancing became the standard in all interpersonal communications to avoid transmitting the disease. N-95 face masks and gowns and patient pre-screening prior to all transports are now standard operating procedures for all BRAS calls. “We now meet patients at the front door with a couple prescreening questions. We check their temperature using a laser scanner which helps limit personal contact, he said.
The rapid speed of coronavirus’ spread resulted in growing from social distancing, to Maine and several other states closing bars and restaurants for two weeks. This is not the first public health crisis in recent memory. In April 2009, the H1N1 or Swine flu resulted in 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and 14,465 deaths. But there were no bar and restaurant or public school and college closures. According to LincolnHealth Infection Control Specialist Dr. Catherine Cavanaugh, DO, the coronavirus is an exponentially more deadly public threat. The range of illness can be as low as mild to no symptoms in which a person may not realize they are infectious. “It appears to be more virulent and spreads with greater ease,” she said. “You can spread the illness unknowingly which makes social distancing so important.” Cavanaugh reported most people recover from COVID-19, but 0.6% flu patients die compared to 3.5 % of coronavirus patients.
Most Maine schools also closed until the end of April vacation in an effort to curtail the spread. School closure also resulted in another problem. Schools serve as a major source of weekday breakfast and lunches. On March 16, Alternative Organizational Structure 98 Superintendent Dr. Keith Laser announced the meal program initiative during a collaborative meeting in the Boothbay Harbor municipal office. AOS 98 officials were joined by municipal leaders, school administrators and non-profit groups charged with assisting low-income families in developing a plan for providing meals seven days a week. Last week, Laser met with AOS 98 food director Darlene French and her assistant Laurie Dickinson in devising a plan to feed students who normally eat breakfast and lunch at school. Other Lincoln County school systems also set up meal programs during the closure.
Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency also worked with towns in drafting a pandemic response plan. Scott Campbell is the Boothbay-Boothbay Harbor EMA director. He has worked with local fire departments and schools to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. He described the Boothbay Region Pandemic Response Plan as based on federal emergency plan criteria. “Right now, it’s a lot of pre-planning if something should. happen. We are preparing for handling an emergency situation such as a car accident to protect victims and first responders. Nobody knows who’s infected so we need to prepare for that,” Campbell said.
Like BRAS, LincolnHealth is also screening patients prior to hospital admittance. The hospital will screen a patient in their car seeking information if they are infected with coronavirus. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. “If a person has symptoms, the individual should call their doctor who will determine whether a test is needed and next steps. The majority of patients will have mild symptoms similar to a bad cold,” LincolnHealth Director of Communications John Martins said. While the coronavirus is only a few months old, Lincoln Heath has prepared for such a pandemic for years. “Our team prepares for emergencies and natural disasters all year long. We have activated our Hospital Incident Command System and have been meeting twice per day for situation updates in all of the important areas. We have focused a tremendous amount of effort around screening for testing, ensuring supplies are on hand and planning for a large influx of patients,” he said.
For those who contract the virus, staying home with a 14-day self-quarantine may be the best medicine. “Most people self-quarantine at home and do very well. Most of the cases do not produce severe symptoms. If someone has symptoms, they should call their doctor who will determine whether a test is needed and next treatment steps. Sometimes, the clinical picture may be consistent with coronavirus, but because of the patient’s risk factor profile, a test is not performed.”
Law enforcement is taking a similar tact in handling potential coronavirus contacts. “We're aware of the dangers and all I will tell you is we’re using common sense in dealing with any situation,” Boothbay Harbor Police Chief Bob Hasch said. So Lincoln County is handling the coronavirus with a lot of social distancing, hand sanitization and a good dose of common sense.