State urges schools, communities to prepare for virus

Health care providers gear up in the event of an outbreak
By Stephen Betts | Mar 03, 2020

Local schools are preparing in the event that the new virus — sweeping some parts of the world — arrives in the Midcoast.

Local hospitals and health care providers are also preparing.

The Maine Department of Education issued a notice to schools Feb. 27 with advice from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on how to prepare for the coronavirus named COVID-19.

There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine.

The state recommends that schools have supplies such as soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, tissues, trash baskets and disposable masks on hand for staff and students.

Schools should plan to have extra supplies on hand during a pandemic — which is an outbreak across an entire country or the world.

Schools should also develop flexible pandemic flu attendance and sick-leave policies for students and staff, according to the state. Staff may need to stay home when they are sick, caring for a sick household member, or caring for their children in the event of school dismissals. Identify critical job functions and positions, and plan for alternative coverage by cross-training staff.

The state suggests increasing space between people to at least 3 feet or limit face-to-face contact between people at school. Several ways to do this include moving desks farther apart, leaving empty seats between students, dividing classes into small groups, holding outdoor classes and canceling school-related meetings and activities.

Identify actions to take if you need to postpone or cancel events, such as sports and special events. Consider limiting access to school campuses by non-essential visitors.

If staff and student absenteeism increases to disruptive levels, schools may need to consider temporarily dismissing classes.

The decision to reopen schools should be consulted with local public health officials.

Schools should consider using web-based instruction, email, social media, local television, radio stations, or U.S. mail, according to the state.

If schools are dismissed, meals and social services offered at schools may need to continue.

According to the CDC, like other coronaviruses, the new virus — which causes a disease now called COVID-19 — is transmitted from person to person via droplets when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread by contaminated surfaces such as door handles or railings.

Scientists in China who studied swabs from infected patients say the new coronavirus behaves like flu viruses, suggesting it may spread more easily than previously thought.

COVID-19 infection has an incubation period of between one to 14 days, and a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found new evidence that the virus can be spread from people who show no symptoms.

Health care community readies for outbreak

The local health care community is also preparing in the event of an outbreak from the new virus.

Dr. Cheryl Liechty, a disease specialist with Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast and Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, said the local health care system has been preparing many years for outbreaks of new viruses.

Liechty said that when a virus not previously documented in humans is identified, there is often a lot of uncertainty at the beginning, and uncertainty can raise concerns.

She said frequently the severity of such viruses are overestimated and said there are a lot of reasons to hope that will be the case with COVID-19.

But in preparation, local hospitals are following the advice of the federal CDC by making sure there are sufficient supplies such as masks, gowns, gloves, and eye protection for staff and patients.

Health care providers are screening patients when they come to their offices to find out if they have any symptoms of the respiratory illness, have traveled outside the country, or were exposed to anyone who might have the virus.

Liechty said someone who suspects they might have the new virus and are not experiencing severe symptoms should call their primary doctor before arriving at the office. The health care provider can talk the matter through with the patient.

Advice to prevent the spread of this virus is the same as with influenza: wash hands and stay home if you feel sick.

Liechty said there is no evidence that a healthy person wearing a face mask will do any good. She said if someone is infected, they should stay out of public spaces, but if they must go out, wearing a mask would be advisable for them to prevent the spread of the virus.

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