Waldo County prepares for COVID-19

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Mar 06, 2020
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds Waldo County General Hospital has stockpiles of supplies that could be used in the event of an epidemic of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, according to an infectious disease specialist there.

Amid news Thursday from the Maine Center for Disease Control that the state's Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory is now able to run blood tests for the new coronavirus, COVID-19, hospital, school and other officials in Waldo County are actively preparing for the possibility of widespread local incidence of the disease that began in Wuhan, China.

Surge plans in place

Dr. Cheryl Liechty is an infectious disease specialist at Waldo County General Hospital and Pen Bay Medical Center. She told The Journal via email that the hospital in Belfast, which has 25 beds, has a "surge plan," a plan in case of a large influx of patients with COVID-19. Liechty added that the hospital is "collaborating with our colleagues across the (MaineHealth) system so that we can share resources to care for our patients." She indicated that it is possible patients from Waldo County could be cared for at facilities elsewhere in the MaineHealth system.

The doctor said Waldo County General has increased its supplies of protective gear and has additional stockpiles of supplies to be used in the event of an epidemic. "At this time," she said, "we have adequate supplies on hand, but we are continuously monitoring our inventory."

People who have symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, cough, difficulty breathing — and also have been in close contact with someone known to have the disease or who have recently been to an active outbreak area, such as China, Italy, South Korea or Iran, among others, should call their primary care doctor before going to their doctor's office, a clinic or the Emergency Department, she said. "This is the best way for us to deliver the right care to patients while protecting others."

The hospital has posted answers to frequently asked questions about the disease on its website at WCGH.org, along with links to state, federal and international public health organizations' websites.

Schools on the front lines

Regional School Unit 3 Superintendent Charles Brown said Thursday that while he had not personally received any calls from concerned parents, school nurses in the district had handled some. The nurses are also making sure they know which students may have respiratory vulnerabilities, such as asthma, and thus be at greater risk from the virus.

Brown said school staff are emphasizing the importance of washing hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for the same amount of time. They are also reminding students to cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away, or if no tissue is available, into their elbow, and to stay home if they feel sick, especially if they have a fever.

He noted that because many families in the district are food insecure, their children depend on getting meals at school. "We can't continue to feed people if we close down school," he said, but  the district is looking into having nonperishable foods available to distribute to families in the event of school closures to help them weather the period until schools reopen.

Brown said the district is not implementing any new cleaning procedures for buildings and buses, but is cleaning more frequently than usual, and is also working on a way to routinely clean equipment such as laptops and other devices that get high student use.

To prepare for the possibility of having more than the usual number of teachers out sick at one time, the district is surveying staff to learn who is able to step in and teach a class. And teachers are being asked to think about how they would prepare lesson packets for students to use at home in the event of a school closure, so that learning can go on during that time. Brown noted that many families in the district do not have internet access at home, so lessons would have to be in a form that all students could use.

He said the district was working hard to provide families with the best information. "The more information we can share with the public, the better."

While RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean was not available for an interview for this story, she referred us to the district website, which has basic information about COVID-19, school policies and links to additional information about the virus. McLean said by email that she had not received any inquiries from parents.

RSU 20 Superintendent Chris Downing was not available for this story.

Public's role in preventing disaster

Waldo County Emergency Management Agency Director Dale Rowley noted that his is not a public health agency, but added that in the event of widespread community transmission of COVID-19, the EMA wold handle such tasks as collecting large quantities of medicines for distribution to those who need them, determining whether large events and gatherings should be cancelled and distributing food to people under home quarantine.

Like most of the people interviewed for this story, Rowley stressed the importance of routine hygiene practices like thorough hand-washing, using disinfectant wipes to clean frequently touched surfaces, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when sick. "Measles is more contagious (than COVID-19)," he said, adding that the precautions to avoid getting sick are the same as for seasonal flu. In the event of an epidemic, he said, people should be prepared to stay home for a while.

If many people must stay home for an extended period, businesses are likely to be affected, Steve Ryan, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged. As of Wednesday, March 4, he said he had not had any questions from businesses wondering how to prepare for the illness, but he decided to include in an email to the chamber's members links to information from the CDC and from Insurance Business Magazine on how businesses can get ready.

He said while businesses should have a plan in case it is needed, he thought the risk of widespread transmission of the virus in Maine was lower than in, say, a large metropolitan area, because the state gets many fewer international visitors.

Ryan echoed the words of others about the importance of employees' using proper hygiene: cleaning work surfaces, washing hands frequently, coughing into an elbow or a tissue.

Rowley noted that individuals will play a large role in how bad the local experience of COVID-19 is. "This is one of those disasters that can only be prevented by the public," he said.

Dr. Cheryl Liechty, an infectious disease specialist at  Waldo County General Hoispital, says the hospital is prepared for COVID-19. (Source: pbmc.org)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Michael Corden | Mar 07, 2020 16:23

The Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, in addition to emailing links to preparedness information to its members, should post such information on its website, www.belfastmaine.org, so that all area businesses have access to it.



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